With Karl Marx’s birthday coming up on Tuesday (he was born on May 5, 1818), I though that I would share some thoughts. Enjoy. Happy Birthday Karl.
In “Marx’s Contributions and their Relevance Today,” John G. Gurley takes an interesting approach to viewing the contemporary economic world through the lens of Marxist analysis. He asks us to consider what Karl Marx himself would say if he were “to rise from the dead and survey our world of theory and practice.” Gurley approaches the question by looking at what he views as the seven major contributions of Marx to economics.
The first of these contributions is Marx’s theory of historical materialism which established a framework “for analyzing economic, social, and political changes over long periods of time.” Today, Marx would find that he was correct about the “transitory” nature of capitalism. Yet, he would find that socialism had not replaced mature capitalist political economies, but instead had taken hold in “immature capitalist or even pre-capitalist societies.” The proletariat in advanced industrialized countries have become satisfied with their relative condition and unwilling to challenge exploitation.
In some way, the transitory nature of capitalism is an evolutionary one. I say this because capitalism changes, but it is not replaced. We see this in the way that capitalism adopts government investment and welfare mechanisms to mute the more brutal aspects of free-market capitalism. Yet, the adaptations do not negate poverty, inequality, exploitation, or alienation. All of this is to say that capitalism has evolved rather than be replaced by communism as Marx predicted. Marx may have been right about capitalism (in many ways), but he may have underestimated the extent to which the forces of capitalism seek to maintain capitalism.
The second contribution which Gurley lists is Marx’s conclusion that working class in “bound” to remain in a lower and “impoverished” position in relation to “the growing wealth around it.” Today, Marx would find that the position of the working class has not changed in its relative position to the capitalist classes. While the details surrounding the conditions of the class may appear different, Marx “would see here essentially the same class structure that he left.” Additionally, Marx would find that economists today, like those in his day, continue to ignore his analysis of labor value and exploitation.
Another contribution of Marx was his “economic theory of the state.” Marx felt that the state could do little to “alleviate the commercial crisis of capitalism.” While the state can make temporary effects though fiscal and banking policy, state primarily works to support the capitalist class. Gurley says that Marx would be “surprised” by the government measure used to stabilize the economy. I agree that he might be surprise by the extent to which big government has been mobilized to support capitalism. However, I think that he would see this as proof of his prediction that capitalism is instable. It is so instable that the forces of capitalism require full backing of the state to perpetuate.
Marx also explained how alienated workers continue to support and idealize capitalism. Additionally, those workers who questioned the merits of capitalism where often mislead or “deceived by numerous anarchist, reformist, and bogus socialist movements.” As a result the workers are not only alienated from the means of production and their own humanity, but also from each other. This division of the working class has long diluted the working class as a political force.
Today, Marx would be dismayed by the grasp of nationalism amongst the working class. The working class seems more likely to be patriotic or nationalistic, in an absolute sense, than amongst elites where as sense of cosmopolitanism is more accepted and encourage. Yet this allegiance to nation state, for Marx, is not is the interest of the worker, particularly when the national interest is the basic for denying the working class progress. He would likewise be dismayed “by the continuing debilitating influence of religion on the working class.” Marx was right to say that the working class are too easily pacified in their alienation by religion. As a religious person, I often am shocked (though I tend not to be so shocked anymore) by the amount of religion that is really just an endorsement of the bourgeois way of life.
Needless to say, Marx would be disappointed today if he returned, both with the state of the world and the state of economics. However, given his understanding of the forces of economics he would not be surprised. He may not have predicted that things would turnout as they have, but many of his assumptions were correct, even if the class struggle did not manifest itself as he might have hoped. I think that he would be most discouraged that while the class structure of society is so evident in the capitalist world, it is widely ignored. We continued to move forward as though we are a classless society, when in fact the classes are just moving farther apart before our eyes. Yet, we still do not see it. Gurley concluded by saying that a revived Marx “begin organizing the proletariat.” I wonder if the despair would overwhelm him. It does me when I consider the prospect of an egalitarian society.
Gurley, John G. “Marx’s Contributions and their Relevance Today.” The American Economic Review 74, no. 2, Papers and Proceedings of the Ninety-Sixth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association (1984): 110-115.