Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels explored the struggle and inequality between social classes in The Communist Manifesto as on of the major faults of capitalism. The Manifesto focus on the distinction between the upper-class, capital-owning bourgeoisie and the working-class proletariat – two classes sustained by a capitalist society. The inequality encompasses the exploitation of the proletariat as they work for minimal wages to make the rich bourgeoisie even richer. The land and capital remain with the bourgeoisie, and are passed down through inheritance; this means the proletariat is trapped in its exploited, low-wage position with no way to escape and move up.
I thought the ideas that The Communist Manifesto addressed were similar to some of the problems and inequalities of globalization and world trade businesses have faced over the last few decades. In Thomas L. Freidman’s book, The World Is Flat, A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, the argument is made that 10 aspects of technology (called “flatteners” by Friedman) have leveled the metaphorical “playing field” of world trade in the global economy. His 10 “flatteners” that have helped give businesses everywhere a chance to be internationally competitive are:
- The collapse of the Berlin Wall
- The launch of the Netscape browser in 1995
- Workflow software (programs that perform medial tasks such as computations and data entry)
- Uploading – the ability to share information with others
- Insourcing – company’s employees perform services for another company
- In-forming – search engines such as Google
- “The Steroids” – tech bits that help make the other “flatteners” that much more effective; texting, smart phones, videoconferencing, voice over IP, instant messaging, etc.
(For more details on and explanations of the “flatteners”, please see Freidman’s book.)
Marx and Engels suggested revolution was the only way for the underprivileged and exploited to escape their class role and have new opportunities; new technology systems could be thought of as the modern equivalent of revolution. While certainly less drastic or rapid than a violent overthrow, these technologies have a global impact and affect millions of firms.
While these 10 “flattening” technologies have aided capitalist systems, the focus of this post is about distributing market power and the ability to compete to all kinds of firms, regardless of their size, age or geographic location. For example, when Netscape launched in 1995, anyone, anywhere with a PC and an internet connection could communicate with anyone else with the same (relatively cheap, easy-to-use) equipment. This meant that if you were looking to sell a product, but were in a geographically-isolated area, you could still compete with other, larger booksellers by having your own website and sharing the product information with consumers all over the world. While a small bookseller certainly does not have the market power of a giant such as Borders or Barnes and Noble, the internet and email communication allow a small company to compete for a market share that was previously dominated by larger firms who were able to simply have more, larger stores in the most heavily-populated locations.
There are some caveats: while technology can help level the playing field, adopting it can be troublesome at times. The cost of being an “early adopter” and learning how to use the technology and dealing with the kinks can be time consuming and potentially costly, and being late the show and failing to start using technology that all of one’s competitors are using can be dangerous for one’s business. However, when done right, the benefits are prolific.
The Communist Manifesto describes the problems of inequality of a class-based order brought about by capitalism, and suggests that a revolution by the proletariat was the only way that (temporary) equality could be brought about. Friedman uses his 10 “flatteners” to describe the leveling of the global playing field and the reduction of some of the inequalities between companies/countries that have existed for hundreds of year. These “flattening” uses of technology are contemporary equivalents of what a revolution would have done in the past; society becomes shaken up as there is no clear division of who has the power and control of the resources and who doesn’t. Everyone has a somewhat equal opportunity to learn and master the new technology, and put it to good use for economically bettering themselves. While it may be somewhat ironic that I am equating a Marxist theory to equality brought about through primarily-capitalist systems, the revolutionizing roles technology innovations play in global trade can very much help level the playing field.
Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat, A Breif History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. Print.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche Second Edition, Edited by David Wooton (Hackett Publishing, Inc. 2008)