If we want to move past capitalism’s grotesque failures, we must look at its most prominent critic to learn.
It has been 138 years since the death of Karl Marx. Marx is considered to be the most prominent critic of capitalism. His most prominent work, Das Kapital, is known as “the Bible of the working class.”
Yet, in the West, Karl Marx is abhorred, and his theories are disregarded without consideration. We are often told that the works of Karl Marx have nothing to teach us, but nothing can be further from the truth. In the age of COVID-19, Karl Marx and Marxism are as relevant as ever.
“What is Marxism?” you may ask. This is not so simply answered: depending on who you ask, you may be told something different. In essence, Marxism is a tool for observing the world and solving problems.
Specifically, Marxism is a socioeconomic analysis which utilizes a materialist interpretation of the world and its history to understand class relations. I hope I did not lose you with such foreign terms because class affects us all.
According to Marx, there are two distinct classes in the production of a commodity. A commodity is a good or service which has “use-value.” Xboxes, Big Macs, and Nike shoes are all commodities.
The two classes that exist in the creation of these commodities are the proletariat (the workers which are the large majority) and the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production which are the minority).
These classes are distinct from previous modes of producing goods and services. In slave societies, slaves produced goods using the property of their master; in feudal societies, serfs would use the lords’ property to produce. Capitalism, according to Marx, did not destroy these class structures but merely transformed them. To put it bluntly, there is a connection to the workers of today and the serfs of yesterday.
Inside the systems of feudalism and slavery, there existed conflict. It is not hard to understand that human beings do not want to be slaves or serfs, it is unnatural and inhumane. However, a minority had a vested interest in the existence of those class relations.
The many serfs may not wish to toil the lord’s land for 12 hours a day, but the lord certainly does. The slave masters and lords had the power over the many to ensure their slaves or serfs were subservient to their class interests. In essence, the desires of the majority were cast aside for the benefit of the very few.
According to Marx, conflict still exists in capitalism. The first example of conflict, called a contradiction, is that the many still produce for the benefit of the few.
In a factory, hundreds of people may work 10 hours a day for an hourly wage that could be less than $10 an hour. The owner, which does not work in the factory, lives off of the surplus value created by these workers. This surplus value is known as “profit.”
A second contradiction is the power dynamic between workers and owners. Just like under slavery and feudalism, a minority tells the majority of people what to do: what to produce, when to produce, where to produce, and then keep all of the profits.
This contradiction is why Marx considered capitalism to be fundamentally undemocratic and why we would consider slavery and feudalism to be undemocratic, as well.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of American people supported lockdowns. Instead of work, they prioritized their own safety and rightfully so. However, we all watched in horror as we hastily re-opened for the sake “of the economy.” Why did state governments ignore the CDC? Why were profits put before the lives of workers?
This is why Marx is particularly relevant today. The richest owners in the U.S. saw their profits and stock portfolios skyrocket as over half-a-million Americans died. The vast majority of COVID-19 deaths were workers and their family members.
This is the natural consequence of outdated modes of production like slavery, feudalism, and capitalism have to offer us: power and life for the few, powerlessness and COVID-19 for the many. If we want to move past capitalism’s grotesque failures, we must look at its most prominent critic to learn.