The Enduring Legacy of Karl Marx: A Re-examination of American Capitalism through Marxist Theory

The legacy of Karl Marx is one of the most conflicted and distorted in modern history. Interpretations from both the Left and the Right have confused much of its meaning, miring it in mysticism and terror, begging us to ask the question; is Marxism still relevant? In truth, the most salient contribution of Karl Marx, more than his predicting the fall of capitalism, is his conception of material dialectics as a historical study for revolutionary praxis. His transformation of what he considered “purely academic” (1a) philosophy into a method for understanding the development of world history and a means of material change has provided a platform for innumerable activist scholars in their search for social justice and economic equality. As Capitalism appears to have legitimized its right in the eyes of many as The global economic system after the fall of Soviet Communism, it is more important than ever for us to reflect dialectically on the economic disparities capitalism perpetuates, the social divisions it creates and its systems of ideological repression, in order for social progress. A critical dialectical education is an essential tool to develop critical conscious and politically active citizens who, through free-will actively participate in building a more equitable future. It is this emphasis on praxis that will make Marxism relevant for generations to come. We are currently taking a breath of fresh air with this new generation, raised outside the influence of the Iron Curtain. An opportunity has opened for a revival of Marxist thought without the cold war stigmas that paralyzed many in ideological fear. We must think of what Marxism can bring us today, rather than becoming stagnant in the dominant paradigm.

No one can fully appreciate Karl Marx if they do not have a clear conception of material dialectics. F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” This is essentially the basis of dialectical thought. Invoking almost Newtonian science, dialectical theory states that any progress only occurs when two opposites come in conflict, creating something new, which then interacts with its own opposite. This is not a new theory. In ancient Greece, Plato was well known for his dialectical method of argument; the best example of which would be Plato’s Republic. (2) Frederick Hegel applied this idea of motion from conflict to his interpretation of historical progress. To Hegel, it is the idea of freedom and the conflict with its opposite that drives human history. We can concede to Hegel that the idea of something must be conceived before it can be put into motion. “You must think before you act” would be the common epigram. However, it is ridiculous to think that an idea has any influence on history until it is put into praxis. Up until this point, philosophy had maintained a position of metaphysically conceptualizing reality, desiring only to organize the world as a way to understand it. But, as Marx says in his Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, “The point, however, is to change it.” (1a) Without material embodiment of some form, ideas have no influence on reality. In The German Ideology, Marx expresses his disappointment in the German people for conceiving perfection in their philosophy, but never applying it to reality. He believed they had suffered the emotional pains of progress without any of the benefits, and that ideas are ultimately useless if they are not made material through action. (1b) In this way, it is not the idea of freedom, as Hegel believed, that drives human progress, but the embodiment of that idea in the struggle of oppressed classes for freedom from their oppressors. Marx conceptualized revolutionary praxis in class struggle, believing that through this material dialectical conflict we will overcome class divisions, making utopian fictions into more than a possible reality, but rather an inevitability. It is this synthesis of dialectical thought and material action that is most unique in Marxist philosophy and what makes it most dangerous in its critique of dominant power structures.

Marx critically applied his material dialectics to his historical analysis of the newly forming economic system of capitalism, so as to understand the inherent conflicts and conceive theoretically its eventual end. The rapid developments of capital and industry during the mid-eighteen hundreds would have given Marx, and any others a unique perspective on the rise of unbridled capitalism. All across Europe, nations were struggling to deal with the shift from rural to urban, from agricultural to industrial and from feudalism to capitalism. The economic disparities that arose during this period are shocking. Engels Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844 is a graphic and depressing depiction of the living conditions of industrial workers during this time. (1c) Later in America, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle describes similarly horrid living conditions for factory workers during the late 1800’s. (3a) It is universally accepted that the period of industrialization for almost any country is destructive to the working class, in many cases creating economic disparities that continue for generations. Marx saw this destitution as a direct result of the contradictions within a capitalist system and worked endlessly to understand its motivations and its weaknesses.

To boil capitalism down to its base organization, its essential motivations, its primal tendencies so as to understand it today, we arrive at this: the means of production are privately owned by a few choice individuals, and to “succeed” these few capitalists most compete between each other for the accumulation of profit. This accumulation leads to expansion of the capitalist’s assets so he or she can continue to succeed and continue to accumulate profit. The relationship of the worker to the owner is fairly simple at first glance. The worker provides their labor to the capitalist in exchange for capital with which they then use to support themselves and their families. However, the nature of competition and accumulation among the capitalists put them at odds with their workers. On the one hand, the capitalist needs the workers labor, but on the other they need larger profit margins to compete successfully with the other capitalists. On a small scale, such as local businesses today where the owner has a close relationship with their workers, this is reconciled mostly by sacrificing larger profits for sustainable and livable workers compensation. But once we reach industrial and corporate scale capitalism the social disconnect is vast between the owner and the worker, creating the tendency among industrial and corporate capitalists to disregard their workers for greater profits margins. Marx conceptualized this as unpaid labor,” that any profit over and above what is required to maintain the business with minimal growth, and its employees at livable wages is stealing from the hands of the laborers. (1d) In most cases, the capitalist institutionalize tactics for diffusing the responsibility of their actions among the proletariat intermediaries they use to manage their investments. In Seattle today we have a modern example of the disassociation of the capitalist from the source of their profit.

The property management company Cornell and Associates employs a large number of working class individuals as onsite managers for apartment buildings around the city. The owner of the building works with a property manager at Cornell who then manages the onsite managers who work with the tenants in their building. Cornell bases the success of the company on the assumption that they can provide more profit for the owner then if the owner managed the building themselves. To this end, they have a policy of cutting corners and raising rent at least every year. This rent raise is based on the competing rent prices of other buildings in the area, yet if the other buildings are following the same general method of competitively raising rent to increase profit, then this this is a fabricated competition between the owners. The constant rise in rent makes it impossible for tenants to remain in any building for a long time, producing a higher turnover rate. The onsite managers, who are paid a rent reduction based on the minimum number of hours spent to maintain the premises, must turnover and rent out the unit without extra pay. Considering the fees included in moving new tenants in and the unpaid labor of the manager, the property makes significantly more with higher turnover rates; An antagonistic business method that does not create a very symbiotic relationship between the tenants and management company. Moreover, neither the property manager, nor the building owner at any time directly deals with the disgruntled tenants. This is also left to the onsite managers who are required to alienate themselves socially from their neighbors so as to minimize personal conflict. The business practices of Cornell and Associates emulates exactly what Karl Marx criticized of capitalism, that its need for profit creates growing conflict between owners and the working class. Now admittedly, this is a single company and does not necessarily reflect how most people may run their businesses. However, considering Cornell is one of the largest management companies in the Seattle metropolitan area, and only continues to expand, we could view this as a successful business model based on the basic motivations of capitalism: to increase profit and expand so as to successfully compete with other businesses. This expansion would not be possible without the unpaid labor of the onsite manager or without the consistent financial pressure put on tenants with raising rents. Karl Marx believed the inherent conflict in capitalism between the working class and the owners of the means of production would lead to all out warfare, eventually ending bourgeois dominance.

The global revolution Marx predicted has not yet come to pass, due in no small part to the unforeseen ability of capitalism to make certain concessions to proletariat demands, making life easier for the working class. Policies like welfare, healthcare and the eight hour work day have placated the rising militancy of workers in the past, and have successfully made life “bearable” for the workers. But this does not solve the inherent issues within the economic system. It simply maintains a majority of America’s population in a position where they might feel content. The first two previously mentioned concessions are constantly in need of defense because they put American capitalism in debt, showing the inherent amorality of the system. The third one, the eight hour workday has been surpassed in many cases by mandatory overtime, and/or the need to maintain two jobs at once to make a living. The rising inter-connect-ability of information has also made it increasingly easy to work from home, meaning that for many in highly technological and quickly growing industries like software development, the work day never ends. There is literally no separation of personal space from their job. On a macro-scale, a large percentage of people born in a certain economic position also die there, showing no real tendency for upward mobility. Some would argue that even the rise of the middle class, heralded as the great achievement of capitalism, is just an extension of the working class, a section of society that fulfills both the need for highly skilled and well trained workers, and as an economic goal within reach of the lower classes. The middle class is an attainable goal and provides an excellent platform for social and economic mobility, yet it is still a tenuous one since a majority of the middle class simply earns enough to live a middle class lifestyle. They have earned the title of having “made it,” and ideologically look down upon those who haven’t “made it” while still not attaining the economic security and freedom true wealth provides. Though much of this is either considered speculation or seriously debatable, it is hard to ignore the consistent redistribution of societal wealth inherent in our economic crises that favor those who already have a lot.

It is common that during the systemic economic failures of capitalism, unemployment rises, creating a larger “army of the unemployed,” (1d) as Marx called it, causing even greater competition for jobs among the workers and pushing wages down. Where other nations with more socialist ideologies like Finland and Sweden have quickly recovered from the most recent economic recession by cracking down on the root of the issue, profit accumulation and expansion of banks, and by redistributing wealth downwards from the well-to-do to the common people, (4) America has only repeated the mistakes of its past, i.e. The Great Depression by funneling wealth upwards in the hope that capitalist investments will rebuild the economy. While our GDP has increased, wages have stagnated, which combined with inflation indicates a decrease in the living standards of the common people. (5) In fact, as the number of millionaires in America has actually grown, the number of people living in poverty has increased at an even faster rate, forcing fierce competition for jobs among the working class. This leads us to the many social contradictions inherent within a capitalist society which are rooting themselves deep in the American psyche.

As an enlightenment era philosophy, staunch individualism is an inherent quality of Capitalism, creating social divisions not just between classes, but between ourselves as well. One of Marx’s most prevalent arguments against capitalism is “alienation” e.g. “cognitive dissociation theory”. When a worker has little to no stake in a company beyond what their labor can earn them, the product itself becomes alienated from the workers mind. The dollar value of the labor is more important than what it produces, thus transforming the purpose of labor from creating a product that contributes to society simply into a means to accumulate capital for self-preservation. When the purpose of a person’s work is disconnected from society, then what that person contributes to society becomes at most a secondary element of what they do. Individualism, combined with competition creates an almost schizophrenic system where our relationship with other members of society is strained by the need to accumulate wealth and survive, i.e. survival of the fittest economics. We become estranged from our neighbors, and by the nature of this estrangement, negate our own nature as social creatures. (6)  On the subject of estrangement from nature and ones-self, Marx wrote that “First, it estranges the life of the species and individual life, and secondly it makes individual life in its abstract form the purpose of the life of the species.” (1e) As the goals of the individual becomes the individualistic goals of society, many reject social responsibility, suppressing either consciously or unconsciously emotions that relate to other humans, i.e. concern, empathy, sympathy. This could account for the recorded rise in “apathy” in the United States. (7) Apathy is an emotional condition, not as severe as depression and not easy to diagnose, related to the suppression of certain emotions like passion, motivation, empathy, and caring. Studies have shown a correlation between the recent rise in apathy and the increased consumer based culture, disconnected from reality. (8) Furthermore, capitalism’s insatiable appetite for profit inevitably focuses investment on products and industries that are profitable. People who have passions for artistic endeavors are either destined to a life of poverty, or in many cases have the subjects of their art dictated by their investors. The internationally acclaimed recording artist Lauryn Hill stepped out of the public eye for many years, only recently coming out to explain that she had been “fighting for existential and economic freedom, which means the freedom to create and live without someone threatening, controlling, and/or manipulating the art and the artist, by tying the purse strings.” (9) This is by no means an isolated incident and should not be perceived as one since many musicians have spoken out against the monetary and artistic constraints imposed by large corporate record labels. Karl Marx wrote that the prevailing ideologies of any society are the ones dictated by the dominant class, perhaps the most insidious of capitalism’s inherent traits.

American Capitalism, through an endless campaign of ideological repression has legitimized itself in the minds of many to the point that they can see no viable alternative. The unfortunate truth is that much of our personal perception is shaped by a variety of forces and conditions outside of ourselves, such as the dominant societal ideology. (10) Pedantic academics who favor the dominant capitalist paradigm educate in a way that perpetuates the current system. Recent sociological studies have shown that the lack of critical consciousness in schools is one major aspect of the education crisis in America today. (11) School curriculum’s and textbooks suffer from a shallow dilution of history, superficially covering facts and dates without any real critical perspective and avoiding any conflicts with the U.S. capitalist belief system. (12) One example of orthodox history lacking critical perspective is our lack of self-reflection on the use of terror to maintain power.

Contradictory to common belief, terror holds no specific affection with communism or Marxist movements. Justified by America as a means to end the Pacific War, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not necessary to end the war, yet it did served another purpose. Essentially, by preventing Japan from falling into the hands of the Russians, the U.S. gained a military base within striking distance of Russia and demonstrated to the already paranoid Joseph Stalin that they were willing to conduct warfare on an unprecedented scale. (13) Since then, every communist or nationalist movement has had the threat of total destruction hovering over them. If dropping the only two atomic bombs in history was not enough to convince the world America would do anything to stop the spread of communism, breaking the Geneva Convention with the excessive gas bombing of Vietnam, a small agricultural nation, hammered it home. On multiple occasions in Latin America, democratically elected officials were ousted by U.S. backed coups that polarized politics, giving rise to intrastate conflicts and bloody purges by nationalistic reactionaries that way out matched any such actions perpetrated by the previous regimes. (14) The global campaign of ideological repression through terror is not purely limited to people outside of the U.S.

Domestically, the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 began as a peaceful rally, and ended in the death sentence of seven socialist labor leaders accused of throwing a dynamite bomb at the police. Even despite evidence that the bomb was thrown by a police provocateur, it would not have taken seven men to plan, build and throw a stick of dynamite. This clearly demonstrates the state of aggression maintained by our law enforcement and legal system against possible revolutionaries and dissidents. During the height of the labor movement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there were many fabricated acts of terror perpetrated by the likes of Harry Orchard or the Molly Maguire’s (15) which framed laborers, inflamed persecution against organizers, and was then popularized in the media to stir anti-revolutionary sentiment. Since WWII, imprisonment has become one of the most effective forms of ideological repression. The Red Scare is one of the largest and most public “purges” of communists from America, turning neighbors and friends against each other. But also the imprisonment of individuals like Mumia Abu-Jamal, serving life on death row for a case with little to no substantial evidence, are held up as examples of what can happen if you even affiliate yourself with a radical movement. (16) Assata Shakur, a 65 year old ex-member of the Black Panthers, currently living under political asylum in Cuba, was just recently added to the FBI’s most wanted list for twice the reward of Osama Bin-Laden. This makes her the first woman added to the list, despite the fact her case was acquitted 36 years ago, making a clear statement on the position of American politics against leaders of alternative movements. (17) This is not the only action taken against alternative organizations since the end of the Cold War.

Most recently, the FBI, in coalition with Homeland Security and private organizations effectively ended the Occupy Wall Street movement by declaring it a domestic terrorist group and imprisoning its organizers without trial. Many were held in solitary confinement without expressed reason. Some of those who have been released show signs of extreme psychological trauma due to their confinement. (18) The tactics used in suppressing Occupy emulates all the standard protocols for asymmetric counter-insurgency programs meant to destabilize militant terrorist organizations abroad. “An effective counterinsurgency program depends on an accurate, substantive, and comprehensive profile of the adversary,” (19) something we now know the FBI was compiling even before the major Occupy actions took place. (20) Is this not an infringement on our right to freely protest, striking fear in the minds of future activists? All of these actions embed in the public consciousness of Americans that alternative ideologies, at least of our governmental and societal organization are not acceptable or viable, taking the power of protest away from the people. This might also contribute to the rise in cases of apathy in America since many cases are directly related to a feeling helplessness, that events around us are out of our control and we have little say in how our lives are dictated. (8) The narrow view of all these historical events portrayed in the media and in orthodox education creates a false consciousness that perpetuates the current paradigm.

When Marx wrote that members of each class are stuck in their own class consciousness, he obviously understood how both social environment and the bourgeois education of the time heavily dictated an individual’s perspective. We have seen how an educations biased view on historical revolutionary events develops a false consciousness. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote on the effect of a false education on women in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, that “the education of the rich tends to render them vain and helpless, and the unfolding mind is not strengthened by the practice of those duties which dignify the human character.” (21a) A similar sentiment could be placed on bourgeois education in general. However, as institutions such as college have become less of a strictly bourgeois endeavor, opportunities have opened up for people of lower economic status to gain an education. The intermingling of social classes within schools has made education a means to break barriers. It has remained a means of restricting consciousness to the dominant ideologies, but now holds the possibility of freeing many from that restriction. To break free of capitalism’s false consciousness, we must learn to apply Marx’s material dialectics both in education and praxis.

A material dialectical study of history provides the most non-biased means of understanding historical events. By interpreting history from an understanding of contradictory forces and how they interact, rather than from within the socially and politically dominant paradigm, we reach a much more equitable, though possibly controversial conclusion. Michael Lowy in his Dialectical Method and Political Theory concludes that

“The point of view of the proletariat is not sufficient condition for the knowledge of objective truth but it is what offers the greatest possibility of access to this truth. This is because truth is for the proletariat a means of struggle, an indispensable weapon for revolution. The dominant class, the bourgeoisie, and also the bureaucrats, in another context need lies in order to maintain their power. The revolutionary proletariat needs truth.” (22a)

The reason why Marx believed no revolution was truly revolutionary if it was not from the proletariat is the same reason history should be viewed from the position of the working class. Even if dialectical method is inherently biased towards the working class, the economic position of the proletariat at the bottom, the most oppressed, least oppressive and the significant majority makes it least likely to distort history in its favor. A revolutionary education is essential to not only freeing the minds of the workers, “The proletariat and the worker in general cannot spontaneously reach a class, and revolutionary consciousness” (22b), but also the bourgeois classes of modern society. Moacir Gadotti, head of the Paulo Freire institute at Sao Paulo University in Brazil takes note of the unfortunate fact that,

“One of the problems with working in colleges of education throughout North America is that prospective teachers and graduate students-through no fault of their own-are rarely ever provided with courses that engage the history of dialectical thought, neo-Marxist approaches to social and educational change, and the criticalist tradition in social theory.” (22c)

Even in a capitalist society, a lack of critical perspective and dialectical conflict stagnates intellectual and cultural growth, rendering society motionless. Again we arrive at the current education crisis in America and the sociological criticism that the suppression of alternative thought prevents societal evolution and progress. Once a person fully comprehends the contradictory forces that shape our material world, they not only become aware of their own environment, but also gain the possibility to become critically active members of society. Nilovna, the protagonist in Maxim Gorky’s Russian historical novel Mother, describes her struggle with ideological repression and her birth of consciousness,

“We people at the bottom feel everything; but it is hard for us to speak out our hearts. Our thoughts float about in us. We are ashamed because, although we understand, we are not able to express them… Now I am able to say something about myself, about my people, because I understand life. I began to understand it when I was able to make comparisons. Before that time there was nobody to compare myself with.” (23)

Some describe the birth of consciousness as an almost religious experience of reawakening, as with Upton Sinclair’s protagonist Jurgis in The Jungle when he attends a socialist convention.

“The sentences of this man were to Jurgis like the crashing of thunder in his soul; a flood of emotion surged up in him-all his hopes and longings, his old grief’s and rages and despairs. All he had ever felt in his whole life seemed to come back to him at once, and with one new emotion, hardly to be described.” (3b)

Both of these characters had come to a greater understanding of their material conditions through revolutionary education. This revolutionary consciousness, as developed with Marxist material praxis makes human beings not only subjects of their reality, but an active participant in transforming it.

Once a revolutionary consciousness is conceived, effective praxis can be applied.  Marx wished that people would realize the role they play in shaping both their own lives and the world around them. This sense of responsibility for the creation of reality has been developed strongly within the theories of existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre explains how “the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility of his existence squarely upon his own shoulders… we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men… my action is, in consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind.” (21) In choosing a certain personal action, the individual also becomes a reflection of the whole of humanity; each action shapes our reality. Material, dialectical praxis in education, as conceived by the likes of Paulo Freire, is paramount to create the sense of social responsibility in citizens required for a progressive and equitable future.

It is unfortunate that Marx’s legacy has become socially taboo and mired in mystified hatred. Vladimir Lenin said it best in his State and Revolution,

“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes have visited relentless persecution on them and received their teaching with the most savage hostility, the most furious hatred, the most ruthless campaign of lies and slanders. After their death, attempts are made to turn them into harmless icons, canonize them, and surround their names with a certain halo for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes… while at the same time emasculating and vulgarizing the real essence of their revolutionary theories, blunting their revolutionary edge.”  (24)

Despite the attempts of those who maintain the dominant paradigm of thought to make it appear obsolete, we can see that Marxist theory remains largely accurate in its examination of modern capitalism. Concessions have been made on behalf of the workers, more than Marx probably would have thought possible, but the underlying motivation for accumulation remains true. Also through education, Marx’s material dialectical praxis holds the possibility of creating critically active and conscious citizens, unbridled by false consciousness, who comprehend the social responsibility required to surpass apathy and build an equitable future for all. The means to this end have been questioned in the past, and rightfully so, but as we enter a new era of world history, Marxist theory remains universally moral, and offers more than just a romanticized dream of a utopian future.

Notes:

1)      The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition, Edited by Robert C. Tucker. (a, pg. 143. b, pg. 146. c, pg. 579. d, pg. 294. e, pg. 75.

2)      Plato’s Republic

3)      The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. (b, pg. 366)

4)      How Sweden Solved its Banking crisis, nytimes.com

5)      America’s Productivity Climes, But Wages Stagnate, nytimes.com

6)      Social Theory article, Wikipedia.com

7)      Down But Not Out, Women’s Health.

8)      Apathy article, Wikipedia.com

9)      mslaurynhill.tumblr.com

10)  Face of Imperialism, by Michael Parenti. (pg. 2)

11)  Schools and Society, by Jeanne H. Ballantine and Joan Z. Spade.

12)  History as Mystery, by Michael Parenti.

13)  Declarations of Independence, Howard Zinn.

14)  Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano.

15)  Labors Untold Story by Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M Morais.

16)  Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. 2010 Documentary.

17)  Angela Davis and Assata Shakur’s Lawyer Denounce FBI’s Adding of Exiled Activist to Terrorists List, democracynow.org.

18)  Bradley Manning, Solitary Confinement and 4 Occupy Protestors. By Bill Quigley, blackagendareport.com.

19)  Insurgency & Terrorism by Bard E. O’Neill. (pg. 155)

20)  Revealed: How the FBI Coordinated the Crackdown on Occupy, by Naomi Wolf. guardian.co.uk.

21)  The Western World, edited by Walter Gustafson. (a, pg. 69. b, pg. 114)

22)  Pedagogy of Praxis by Moacir Gadotti (a, pg. 28. b, pg. 49. c, pg. X)

23)  Mother, by Maxim Gorky (pg. 153)

24)  Vladimir Lenin, State and Revolution (pg. 7)

Contact me for full bibliography.

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  1. […] The Enduring Legacy of Karl Marx: A Re-examination of American Capitalism through Marxist Theory. […]

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