Marx: From Beyond the Grave
The global economy is now in a downward spiral, unemployment is at record highs in country after country, national debt is paralyzing governments, incomes have stagnated for a majority of workers — suddenly the question emerges from Marx’s grave: has capitalism been transformed into feudalism? Is our unregulated approach to capitalism tantamount to enslaving masses in serfdom under feudal lords who own the land/economy in which we work? Is capitalism without regulation inherently unjust and self-destructive? Marx theorized that the capitalist system would inevitably impoverish the masses as the world’s wealth became concentrated in the hands of a greedy few, causing economic extremes and social conflict between the rich and working classes. “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole” ~Karl Marx.
Karl Marx died and was buried, seemingly along with his philosophy. The collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s prosperity since its emergence to a capitalist economy, sealed the fate of Marx’s philosophy as communism faded into the backdrop of history. The only communists heard of any longer were arch-villains in old James Bond movies, or on the news in the bloated rhetoric of child-emperors like Kim Jong Un. The class conflict that Marx envisioned seemed to have faded and given way to new frontiers of prosperity and unregulated upward advance in laissez fair markets and entrepreneurial globalization. Nothing was to be heard of regulations or the needs of the community as a priority above the sovereign rights of the investor-individual. Communication, international banking, expedited sea and air travel, and merging multi-national economies linked far off and remote corners of the earth with centers of purchasing power and consumption. The bonds produced were ones of lucrative potential and supposed mutual profit. Masses of slave labor forces in China and Indonesia were linked with desperate iPhone’s buyers in the USA through deregulated multi-national transport and finance routes resulting in the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. Borderless economies were the result of dropping international import/export taxes. Farm workers in China were offered more money than they had ever seen before, despite the decimation of their local economies, family structures, health and sanitation conditions, and for far less than US minimum wage. For Silicon Valley tech giants the exploitation proved to be a remarkable benefit to their share holders. Less than 1% of Americans own over 50% of all stocks and bonds currently. Therefore, the mega rich effectively empowered their corporations to exploit the labor forces of distant economies for the century’s greatest instance of profiteering. The GDP, CEO salaries, stock values, corporate profits, and owner’s incomes all reflected this astronomical concentration of human wealth into the hands of the greedy few. This new oligarchy has become the modern version of Feudal lords. They own the land. We just work on it. All the rest who work for productivity-based wages are the masses of serfdom who toil in their service.
In the past, feudal lords maintained their dominance by force. Nowadays, the oligarchy keeps the situation alive with myths of social mobility and propaganda that convince people they can get rich as long as they work hard. Try as they might, however, people are beginning to realize that they work for a system that gives them no meaningful share of the profits they create. They will always be employed by the system, never owners of their own system. Moreover, their wages were shrinking given the rise in inflation, with no compensation in income or minimum wage. Additionally, an increased intensity of work demand was not earning anything more than the toil they endured day in and day out. Finally it dawned on them that social mobility was a myth designed to pacify the modern version of serfdom.
The owners of the system were an oligarchy that owned the rights and deeds to all land and profits and performed no work in the system themselves. The system ran on the backs and sweat of the slave labor class. Nothing seemed capable of hindering the political and economic machinery by which the super-rich concentrated all the world’s wealth into their hands, and relegated the burden of production and society-building to the poor and working classes. Capitalism now seems to be fulfilling Karl Marx’s long out-dated warning — that inherent to the system of personal self-interest and social non-responsibility there would arise a super-class of corporate tycoons, who purchasing the legislative powers of the state would employ the apparatus of government to their own greedy ends. The result: squeezing the masses of their labor and rewards and expanding extremes of wealth and poverty.
Wealth inequality would cause wide-scale poverty and privation of the necessities of life. The suffering would increase until a large enough majority were severely discontent. When social unrest can no longer be contained, a tide of populist uprisings would sweep the economic and political landscape stripping the wealthy of their lands and lives. As the feudal lords scramble to flee with what hoards of treasure they can steal with them, they take up foreign abodes and island resorts in exile. The blood of the bourgeoisie fills the streets and guillotines follow swiftly upon kangaroo courts for the opulent princes and nobility that remain behind. The popular uprising supplants the political status quo with a government that rules by the people, of the people, and for the people.
Marx’s theories must echo loudly in our times faced with the reality of oligarchs that influence US politics, corporations that lobby legislation, and workers that are increasingly dissatisfied with their wages. Social change and willing progress towards economic justice is the only hope to a peaceful resolution of the dilemma. Justice demands conscientious insight into the needs of the community, and the rights of the public ought to be safeguarded against the excesses of individual greed. Otherwise, Marx’s philosophy is dangerously close to becoming a reality. Proactive, conscientious, and moral legislation will be needed to correct the excesses of this irresponsibly deregulated economy.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest the rich are getting richer while the middle class and poor are getting poorer. A September 2011 study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington noted that the median annual earnings of a full-time, male worker in the U.S. in 2011 was $48,202 which is less than it was in 1973 given the rate of inflation. Between 1983 and 2010, 74% of the gains in wealth in the U.S. flowed directly into the bank accounts of the richest 5% of Americans, while the bottom 60% suffered a decline in take-home pay.
Marx’s critique of unregulated capitalism appears to be coming true. It is easy to criticize. Marx’s solution seems not to have fared so well. Communist governments have failed miserably in historical examples from the collapse of the USSR to the mass poverty of China in the late 20th century. The conclusion may be obvious: Marx’s criticisms of capitalism were valuable, but his solution, communism, is not (private property is needed for incentivizing labor). As with many 19th century anti-establishment critiques, Marx’s criticisms were insightful, factual, and valuable. However, as with almost all of the 19th century post-modern critics, he had more effective criticisms than he had solutions. We can say that now, with the testimony of China and Russia in hindsight. Marxism, Communism, Socialism remain an informative category through which to deconstruct the inefficiencies of our current economic establishment, but not reliable methods for enacting responsible and positive change for the future. Marxian class theory remains an invaluable lens through which to view the struggles of laborers world-wide, as well as a wonderful insight into the dangers of unbridled capitalism which allows the extremes of wealth and poverty to invoke social unrest. Revolution by the hands of an enraged proletariat is no trifling matter, and deserves to be preempted in the stage of social unrest in which rests now, before the suffering of the masses draws out frank violence and revolution. “There is only one way to shorten and ease the convulsions of the old society and the bloody birth pangs of the new – revolutionary terror”, wrote Marx.
Workers of the world are growing discontent and belligerent, demanding their share of the increases accrued to the global economy. From the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to the streets of Athens to the assembly lines of southern China, political and economic events are escalating tensions between sectors of capital and of labor to a degree hitherto unseen since the communist revolutions that rocked the 20th century. How this struggle plays out will influence the direction of global economic policy, the future of the welfare state, political stability in China, and who governs regions from Washington to Rome.
Tensions between economic classes are on the rise. Slogans encapsulate entire movements, such as “99%” (the masses or majority working class people) juxtaposed against the top “1%” (the wealthy, elite owners of corporations and big oil, who are connected politically). A Pew Research Center poll released last year showed that 2/3 of US inhabitants said they believed the country suffered from a “strong” or “very strong” conflict between rich people and poor people. In 2011 this was ranked as the most significant division characterizing US society, giving it a 19% increase in popular conception since the same study in 2009.
The modern US political discourse is being ambushed with a preoccupation with the concept “debt” which represents the cumulative excess expenditure accrued over all previous years through the addition of each year’s fiscal budget “deficit.” Deficit is another term of central importance to the debate. The deficit is the difference between the revenue and the expenditures of the US government annually, and each annual deficit funnels into the cumulative national debt. Revenue is the product of 1) taxation, and the total GDP of the economy that year, because more product means more incomes, which provides a larger sized principal to be taxed. Expenditure is the sum of costs such as wars, military spending, infrastructure, health care, medicare/Medicaid, research and investment, roads and construction, congressional operating budgets, etc.
The issue of debt has dominated the discourse as a result of proponents who wish to bias the categories of discussion towards downsizing and weakening the government, its domestic offices and their functions of regulating business and representing the interests of the public. The reality is that the issue of “Debt” is not even among the top 3 most important issues facing modern US economics today. Unemployment is #1. Two wars, a deregulated sub-prime mortgage bubble, and an unemployment rate close to 7.7% (Bureau of Labor statistic) is the root cause of deficits, debts, poverty, social unrest, and class distrust. More people working implies less unemployment entitlements doled out and more working individuals available to be taxed by the IRS. Reducing unemployment to 5-6% for example is the single most important way to improve people’s social status, personal well-being, healthcare, happiness and it will solve the budget, debt, and deficit problems. A working person has money to spend on stimulating the economy, receives health insurance from her employers, and has income that can be taxed by the federal government. Reducing unemployment should be the #1 economic policy interest of the US government and electorates who vote for congressional office. Improving the quality of employment, wages, insurance benefits, and investing in research and education that will train the next generation of skilled laborers and scientists is the surest way for preparing for sustainable economic prosperity in the long run.
Discourse on this topic has been largely politicized along partisan talking points that obscure the true intent of the speaker behind vague platitudinous of American patriotism which prevent an honest exchange that can actually lead to consensus in public opinion. Obscurantism serves the interests of those who benefit from popular disunity. To eliminate the extremes of wealth and poverty, Marx explains, the state will have to tax wealth that is sitting idle and not being re-invested in the infrastructure of the economy. Funding for universities, research, roads, services, and healthcare lay the societal foundations for future prosperity. Wealth that sits idle in personal bank accounts or is used for extravagant personal entertainment does not trickle down to training skilled labor forces or improving healthcare cost-effectiveness. Finally, wealth that is being shuffled around thousands of times per second in un-taxed high-finance stock exchanges especially in the case of derivatives, short-sales, and futures is not only not contributing to the common weal, it is diverting resources away from productive sectors of the economy, and instilling dangerous volatility into the overall health and stability of the global economy, viz. the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis for which the middle class is still fitting the bill. Stock exchange purchases and sales should be taxed just like any other sale or purchase of goods on the market. That would slow down the rate of trading that has a proclivity to enabling gambling and irresponsible practices of financiers and wall-street market riggers, as well as generating an additional source of income for the federal government.
Cutting health care services simply drives the cost of living higher for the working class. This makes it essential for maintaining the overall health and stability of the workforce that the government tax corporate profits which corporations refuse to translate into increased worker’s wages and utilize those usury incomes for the benefit of the public in social services and reinforcing national infrastructure. An injured or sickly laborer cannot earn profits for corporations or himself, but the short-sightedness of quarterly profit margins blinds corporate boards to the social reality that they are driving the working class into the ground. This slavery is a subjugation from which there is either no return but poverty, or the return that no one wants but which Marx prophesied.
Amid the rhetoric of “Trickle-down” economics, which insists that the success of the 1% will benefit the 99%, the masses of the electorate have come to seriously question the underlying logic. Every working man and woman senses something amiss about this logic. However, we are told that if we tax the rich we will incur the wrath of their out-sourcing manufacturing jobs to overseas, and they will move their capital and investments elsewhere. Perhaps some corporations will, but wherever they go, that place will soon suffer the unjust exploitation corporations bring with them. One by one the nations of the world will have to turn to a more regulated form of capitalism under pressure from labor forces awakening to their rights as co-creators of the economic productivity of a company. Dissatisfied and exploited workers in all societies will vote out their incumbent leaders who have been corrupted by lobbyists, and governments more representative of the interests of the people will emerge as the staple of national leadership.
Globalization can be seen as a transitional stage for countries that are coming to learn the benefit of regulating capitalist businesses. Inevitably, as each nation experiences in their own turn the downside and travesties of corporate exploitation of the masses and as their workers become more educated from the internet and a collapsing global flow of information the havens for corporate outsourcing will dwindle. So long as the masses retain their democratic voting power, the unification of the globe in a common economic policy that protects the laborer, is inevitable. The rich will run from country to country, seeking those that will welcome their corruption in their politics and legislate tax codes in their favor, but when those last few countries are reformed by an increasingly enlightened electorate who vote for the people’s representatives, there will be nowhere for the rich to take their exploitative business practices. No country will want them to exploit their masses for fear of the people’s wrath in democratic elections. Eventually, there will exist no safe haven in which multi-national corporations can perpetrate their exploitation of underpaid labor and ship the products to developed countries where consumers will fund their enterprise. Products will have to be manufactured locally.
Through shared travails and common experiences at the hands of exploitative corporations the people of the world are being drawn into under one economic policy, that protects the labor force from unjust exploitation. As for the present day, when the rich threaten to take their business elsewhere, on principle the workers must respond, “Go ahead. There are a finite number of places to which you can flee, and the day is approaching when you will not be welcome anywhere. On that day, no leader will be open to your corruption, because the eyes of a democratic electorate are trained upon them.” Any manner of bargaining with corruption simply makes that corruption more emboldened and virulent.
The rich-poor class struggle is more severe in China, where workers no longer enjoy the job-security promised under a communist regime, but did not gain a capitalist government that cares regulate worker-conditions or wages. Along with the lack of environmental regulations, workers rights legislation, freedom to protest of assemble, lack of free press, and absent manufacturing quality standards, China has seen an explosive expansion of air pollution, toxic contaminations, worker suicides, biohazard outbreaks, and lead and heavy metals in children’s toys. Obama and the newly elected President of China, Xi Jinping, face similar challenges related to the intersection of workers rights and oligarchical influence over government demanding unbridled economic freedom for exploitative practices, although the situation in China is more pronounced.
Marx’s warnings do not just apply to slow-growing, debt-ridden, industrialized economies in the West but also to rapidly expanding, emerging markets, such as China. In China workers have few rights, wages are minimal, infrastructure is not provided, and the disparity between the rich and the poor is sky-rocketing. Resentment is reaching a boiling point in factory towns due to increasing hours, rising costs, oppressive management, and overdue paychecks. The rise of Marx’s proletariat can be heard echoing in the cries for justice that ring in the hallways where workers commit suicide. Tension between rich and poor is becoming a primary concern for policymakers the world over.
Internet access enlightens millions of youth that global conditions and expectations are changing. The free flow of information clues people into the fact that millionaires are partying with profits made on laborers efforts, while they are paid less than minimum wage. Through this rising consciousness, movements for social justice are laying the foundations for long-term and more egalitarian forms of prosperity. Factory workers feel a spiritual and moral righteousness in demanding humane working conditions and equitable pay in light of a sense of global solidarity, as well as their level of productivity relative to the salary of their CEO. The internet makes all of these concepts freely available and the revolution is therefore inevitable.
The democratization of knowledge is one of the most powerful forces of humanity’s collective maturation, and is soon to be recognized for its value as a force superior to that of economic growth. Knowledge and its free access and dissemination and productions should be recognized as the central pillar of human society, and the fulcrum round which society and its economy and government turn. Knowledge and its associated systems for generation and dissemination like universities, research labs, and the internet, will soon supplant monetary wealth as the true measures of power and value. Monetary wealth is of short-term value, whereas systems for the democratization of knowledge can lay the foundation for national economic and social prosperity for centuries. Knowledge achieves this power by being entailing an attitude of empowerment and collective problem solve. As such democratic knowledge generation is a renewable resource with limitless applications. Moving beyond corporate dominance and financial influence in politics there will be an era in which monetary power is not only considered irrelevant to social decision-making and change, but we will see the rise of knowledge, and those who know how to generate and apply it, to the helm of decision-making, change, and authority.
Marx’s class theory foresaw much of our current class struggle. However, a violent revolution, as he prescribes, is not the way forward. Violence begets violence and does not lay the foundation for a just and prosperous future. Laborers are increasingly agitated. Tens of thousands have protested in Madrid and Athens, bemoaning the stratospheric unemployment rates and austerity measures that best them. Marx encouraged this sort of protest, saying “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” He went to on to explain that change can only be attained by a forcible overthrow of social structures. This however is not the case. And it makes it all the more imperative that peaceful solutions be reached in a reasonable time frame, before suffering consumes more souls in scale and severity, and social unrest produces violent revolution. It is important for all of us to act now, before Marx’s proletarian revolution becomes a reality.
Unions have not been able to be part of solution in large part due to their bureaucratization. In fact, many workers have abandoned unions in recent times. Populous demonstrations like the “Occupy” movement demonstrate the expansiveness of the discontent and the severity of those affected, nevertheless such movements lack the rational discourse to accompany their views in the public domain, not to mention lacking the institutional influence to see any substantive change. Most of those affected seek a peaceful reformation of the existing government institutions, tax codes, spending priorities, and economic regulations that themselves are actually in the system’s best long-term interests for a viable and sustainable economic posterity.
The US congress is held hostage by corporate-owned votes and lobbyists, China’s government does not know how to rectify wide-spread corruption, Europe is approaching unemployment with economic policies that decrease government spending instead of stimulating growth, Italy, Spain, Greece and Cyprus are being forced to accept austerity measures for workers and further deregulate their economies, and national unions have collapsed under the threat of out-sourcing jobs overseas.
The solution is an international labor union, across all national borders. Thereby corporations will be unable to exploit people by threatening to take jobs overseas. In the long run, the economic unification of the planet is inevitable to defend against dangers such as this. It is best to be pro-active and support a preemptive international movement for standardization of laborers wages and rights of sanitation and working conditions across national borders.
The political spectrum of left-right wing supporters is now heavily biased towards the right. The left of yesterday is the center-right of today. And the right of yesterday is the fascism of today. It really raises concerns for what tomorrow’s political radicals will bring.
Marx’s class theory helps us understand the problems of class struggle today, but we need to unite as a global economy with a universal scope to our laws and policies, with an equal emphasis on corruption-free legislation at the national and international levels, to be able to address the challenges confronting the labor and capital markets of the 21st century.
“Let your vision be world embracing”