My Essay on Communism
“A Better and Worst World with Capitalism”
Important questions: Does having ‘capital’ in ‘capitalism’ mean I have to capitalize it? It may be a capital offense depending on where your capitol is. Some may think, “What a capital idea!”
I. Introduction — Explaining Marx in 1,000 words is like describing Mozart in a limerick. It’s an injustice. Marx was so loquacious that the act of him breathing produced 1,000 words.
How has capitalism benefitted humanity? How do the powerful, in capitalism, maintain their power? Is the relationship between the powerful and the vulnerable fair? Is it equitable? Can a better world be imagined, if it is found unfair and/or inequitable? These are the questions Karl Marx tackled. To this day, these questions remain points of debate.
Marx’s inquiry suffered derision for a failed economic ideology with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s and its association with dictatorships. Since then, Marx has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity to explain the 2008 financial crisis. Given that the financial crisis had its roots in capitalism’s flaws, readers did not look to Marx to understand communism, but to understand a time-tested critique of capitalism.
Most poignantly, Marx wrote more about Capitalism than Communism, and lesser still on what Communism itself should look like (to the chagrin of revolutionaries). Today’s scholars call his body of work - from capitalism to socialism, to communism - as Marxism. Marxism rests on one idea: A fair economic system rests on the working class to seize the means of production, because to do otherwise, would be willful exploitation.
II. Class — Those with a lot of class think Marx is “c[r]ass”
The fundamental premise of Marxism rests on the relationship between two classes of people: The few bourgeoisie and the numerous proletariat (474 and 477). (Also known as capitalists and workers, respectively)
The bourgeoisie held the resources to make profits - machines, tools, natural resources and factories. Contemporary economists refer to it as capital; Marx calls it the “means of production.”
In contrast, the proletariat owned one thing: the ability to use the bourgeoisie’s capital to produce things of higher value. Marx called this ability to create as their “labor power.”
The relationship between the capitalists and the workers is necessary but antagonistic. The capitalists need laborers to turn their capital into profits and the proletariats need wages from the capitalists to survive. In essence, both groups are attempting to survive in capitalism’s eco-system - capitalists require profits to survive as a firm, workers are desperate for a wage to support their livelihoods.
To understand how the fight for survival became ubiquitous, one must inspect the prior economic arrangements. The arrangement was called feudalism. (477)
III. Feudalism - Not to be confused with “Freud-ism,” though incest was rampant among those with a lot of class during this time
The previous feudal economy enforced a hierarchy of power branching out like a tree from the pope to kings, to bishops, to knights and alike. They formed the elite, often in some form of nobility. The remaining varied between lower and middle classes such as farmers, tradesmen and journeymen. For purposes of clarity, they will be referred to as serfs.
The capitalists economy burgeoning in the nineteenth century transformed two aspects of the former feudal arrangement:
- The elites became the capitalists and the serfs became laborers; it was previously sufficient to name the various branches of power, but to Marx, these two classes defined power relations (474).
- Whereas the serfs gave up a part of their work in the form of a tribute to the political elite, laborers gave their labor power wholesale in exchange for a salary (204). Through a salary, laborers did not own the full value of what they produced.
Durkheim, another Sociology scholar writing after Marx, observed that the bifurcation of society held potential for new avenues of cooperation. In essence, Durkheim held an optimistic view: Skilled laborers would cooperate with other fields, fostering interdependence and thus, cooperation.
Although Marx wrote before Durkheim, Marx’s tomb of manuscripts suggests that tension would increase, not decrease. Skilled laborers would disappear, not strengthen, as this essay will explore later under ‘division of labor.’
More broadly, Marx illustrates the tension originates from the inherently flawed nature of capitalism: It is exploitative. The powerful, specifically the bourgeoisie/capitalists, return less than full value of the laborers’ products back to the workers.
IV. Exploitation — The French have a cure for it. It’s called five weeks of mandatory vacation.
Capitalism’s exploitative nature comes from various societal conditions, but key among them was a paradigm shift in private ownership. (79) Laws began to change where what was commonly held land pastures was re-possessed by a growing class of elites. This idea of ownership begun to inspire other areas of the economy - including the idea of owning someone else’s work.
In feudal society, serfs owned all of their work, and gave a portion to the political ruler in exchange for safety, protection and basic infrastructure. However, in a capitalistic society, individuals gave up the complete result of their labor in exchange for one thing, a wage. The wage-givers, the capitalists, gave back only a portion of the total revenue produced by the workers. They offered little safety, protection and infrastructure to their workers. This is central to Marx’s explanation of exploitation. (209)
V. Capitalism as Social Fact — This idea confuses Fox News
One may argue, “The capitalists are unfair, greedy pigs!” In one sense, that rings true, but as a famous rapper Ice-T recited succinctly, “Don’t hate the play[er]. Hate the game.” While Ice-T may have talked about the aggressive pimping or drug-hustling in Newark, New Jersey through the 70s and 80s, Ice-T did point to one key aspect that both urban youth and capitalists share: The desire to survive a competitive, profit-driven society. Get people to follow (with coercion if necessary), build prestige and make money, or perish. Capitalists are bound to the facts of society, just like a “player.”
Who would have thought Ice-T’s rap lyrics would serve as a microcosm of Marxism? In fact, Ice-T’s life of well-staged bank robberies and subjugation of women would be equally tantamount to capitalism’s egregious moral flaws. Marx would point out that one individual stealing, drug dealing and “hustling” would be seen as moral depravity. However, when done on a wide scale that encourages humans to extract profit from others, that is institutionalized prostitution. Except, the name is capitalism, not sex work.
In a historically significant example, Imperial China suffered a siege of Capitalists aggression through the 1800s: the influx of drug-hustling by the British unto the Chinese natives, and violently retaliating when the Chinese encroached on their profit margins. This would be known as the Opium wars. It was capitalism’s invisible free market hand, as Ice-T would write, “smacking a bitch up.” Capitalism would then proceed to search China’s pockets for loose change. (477)
Marx’s explanations for exploitation and the endemic nature that span over a hundred years attest to his voraciously robust critique of capitalism. In fact, as Ice-T and the Opium Wars suggest, capitalistic exploitation not only applied to businesses. More importantly, these cases illustrate, capitalism affected micro and macro interactions.
Further, as Ice-T wrote about “the game,” capitalism predates many people, people are bound the rules and are directly and indirectly affected by it. To be involved, either as a capitalist or a player, is not to perpetuate an unfair system. It is simply surviving something that one individual cannot tackle, if they can recognize the system at all.
VI. Division of Labor— Also known as Divide and Conquer, another French cure (by Napoleon)
Capitalists have created many methods to extract profits from workers - wage minimums (206) that kept laborers alive enough to work and reproduce, ideological control through intellectuals, the employment of children and women and long work days that kept them focused on surviving. (79)
As the basic unit of business is its capital. It will seek to make his capital more efficient. Among its capital is not only machines and natural resources, but also its workers. Thus, to drive down the cost of his human capital, a division of labor begins to appear.
Division of labor allows capitalists to extract higher profits by making routine the many motions of a highly-skilled laborer. Rather than having one individual make a product from conception to the last finishing touches, the task is broken up into possibly thousands of little motions shared by hundreds of people.
Marx reveals his great admiration for the division of labor and capitalism in general. (475)
By breaking down tasks into simpler segments, the collective force of human work created infrastructure and monuments to society that had not been seen before. Producing commodities required less material and human capital.
Additionally, paired with market competition, the division of labor drove enterprises to push the boundaries of human knowledge and exploration of the furthest reaches (476). As a consequence, enterprises discovered technology and phenomenon that could improve the human condition. For once, economic actors harnessed the scientific process. Arguably, running water, electricity, medicine, trade and imported exotic food are possible through capitalism’s ethnic of profit
However, Marx reveals a dark side to the division of labor despite its glorious achievements.
The simplification of jobs did not required skilled laborers. In fact, laborers became replaceable. Tasks were routinized such that one skilled laborer’s knowledge was broken into various parts for a multitude of people, each person acting as a replaceable gear in a long assembly line. The replaceability led to competition for a few jobs - there was always a worker somewhere who could demand less in wages, increasing the firm’s revenue, and place out of work individuals who wanted a higher salary. (213, 214, 217, 479)
In this scheme, cooperation was not created among workers. The opposite occurred. Workers competed among each other for the few jobs available.
Further, the division of labor, by having a person do one or two simple tasks, men became estranged from what they created. Marx called this the separation of man from species being (77). The serf owned all he made and could be proud of what he did - like skilled trade guilds. However, under the division of labor, the many tasks are simplified that any meaningful product is robbed from man.
One may think that the laborers’ toils are all one sided - the endemic exploitation, the division of labor and the estrangement of workers from their labor.
Lesser known is that the bourgeoisie suffer too, though likely less. If the fight for a limited number of jobs exemplified the workers’ struggle, the fight for finding new markets to create revenue was equally strong. This lead to a host of other problems Karl Marx writes about: the crisis of overproduction, strengthening nationalism and pilfering of natural resources. Nations fought each other for control of colonies so it may profit; the losing side could mean the demise for many bourgeoisie. Further, in order to create a profit, firms often over-produced, leading to “crisis of overproduction.” (478) During such a crisis, the bourgeoisie became vulnerable to popular unrest. Most importantly, however, the bourgeoisie risked the highest amount of defeat because of the constant need to innovate - other firms with more efficient technology could place people out of work. (476) Thus, the bourgeoisie would shrink. (211)
In Marx’s writings, he plunges deeper into the mechanics of Capitalism which support his theory that it is inherently exploitative for all classes. However, in a small subset of his writings - the Communist Manifesto - he encourages workers to own the fruits of their labor. Marx does not deny capitalism altogether because he is acutely aware of the gifts it has bestowed.
Rather, he offers a fix to the moral irony that plagues capitalism that allows man to feel fulfilled, but also live in a system that can create bigger and better things. He called it communism. Exactly what it would look like, well, he did not write much about that.