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Posts Tagged ‘Marx’

The Problem of Global Capitalism

After one hundred and fifty years, Avineri’s reassessment of The Communist Manifesto’s close minded view of capitalism as an unchanging industry “dependent largely on machinery that was powered by steam derived from burning coal” raises interesting issues. The Communist Manifesto presents a compelling and eloquent argument misused by power-hungry oligarchs of history and Avineri asserts that there is more to be gleaned from this document he asserts was “intended to be a key to the hieroglyph of history.” He, seemingly accurately, describes the living entity of a capitalist nation and a government’s ability to adapt it to society’s needs in a way that Marx could not foresee. However, this should not entirely discredit Marx’s view on the weaknesses of capitalism.

Avineri makes the assessment that “an internal polarization between capitalists and proletarians” has been translated to “an external one between ‘capitalist’ and ‘proletarian’ nations.” His assertion that a global capitalist environment has emerged is particularly interesting and deserves further comment. This is something not heavily addressed by Marx, who believed capitalism would give way to revolution internally, but is important to our nation as we continue to exercise relations with other countries.

It is important because a global economy resembling capitalism has drawbacks similar to those outlined by The Communist Manifesto and therefore our nation must be conscious of this similarity if it hopes to adapt. I assert this because global capitalism is causing our nation to police the world. Currently there exist, whether we are willing to admit it or not, bourgeoise nations and proletariat nations. Furthermore, it is the general consensus that we exist as a bourgeoise nation, and this creates understandable unrest and resentment between the nations we exploit. Avineri asserts that it is here Marx and Engles are justified in their assessment of capitalism:

“[Marx and Engles] have been vindicated by the facts of globalization—the sweatshops of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with their child labor, their horrendously unsanitary working and living conditions, and their lack of minimum-wage laws and basic social welfare networks. Here, then, are the successors of the sweatshops of London’s East End or New York’s Lower East Side.”

It is here that the assessment made in The Communist Manifesto seems much more applicable to modern life. It is perhaps a harsh view of America’s international politics, but it must be acknowledged that we are an unwelcome presence in many lives overseas and our first interest is our own nation. Overwhelming majorities in many countries are beginning to speak out against our imperialistic tendencies. For example, our presence in Latin America is actively and vocally detested in many of the countries, yet we stand our ground. While it is a complicated issue, America should reassess its (especially military) presence in the world. We should actively transform our capitalist outlook in the way Avineri suggests is possible internally in a nation. He makes an excellent point about the transformative nature of capitalism as its saving grace. This should not be overlooked by our international relations.

  • Avineri, Shlomo. The Communist Manifesto at 150.
  • Lavaque-Manty, Mika. “After Marx.” Polsci 101. Angel Aud. B, Ann Arbor. 14 Dec. 2009. Lecture.

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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:

  1. The collapse of the Berlin Wall
  2. The launch of the Netscape browser in 1995
  3. Workflow software (programs that perform medial tasks such as computations and data entry)
  4. Uploading – the ability to share information with others
  5. Outsourcing
  6. Offshoring
  7. Supply-chaining
  8. Insourcing – company’s employees perform services for another company
  9. In-forming – search engines such as Google
  10. “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.

References:

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)

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The idea of a communist revolution happening here and now seems ridiculous to us. Why? Because we believe that capitalism has evolved to a point at which there is no longer a bourgeoisie oppressing the proletariat, and instead, a large middle class that functions without oppression, through the principles of self-advancement, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Jobs today generally require enough skill and have pleasant enough working conditions that work is not characteristically dehumanizing. Equal opportunity is given to most to be able to elevate themselves from unsatisfactory lifestyles. And so the proletariat has turned into a lower middle class that can work hard and become an upper middle class, which is not far beneath the modern bourgeoisie in social status.

This is the norm in America, at least. Our “American dream” ideal of a common laborer using his skill and ingenuity to advance in life has permeated our cultural ideology to a point where we cannot fathom the concept of modern slavery, or the inability to progress out of an unpleasant position. But there is still a need for people to work unpleasant jobs—technology has done much to lighten that burden, but it hasn’t come close to lifting it completely. Marx’s proletariat has become the minority. We don’t live in a society in which the majority suffers daily in their labor, the benefits of which are enjoyed solely by the rich. Those are the premises on which Marx and Engels based the Communist Manifesto; we can no longer identify with the problem that they propose to solve.

However, globally, there is most definitely an oppressive upper class and a suffering lower class. Here in the USA, people from rich to poor are able to adorn themselves in status-symbol clothes and shoes, made by foreign workers whose wages would not afford them a fraction of that which they produce. Is this proletariat similar enough to Marx’s that there might someday be a global Communist revolution? In “The Communist Manifesto at 150”, Slomo Avineri points out that “although polarization did not, as a rule, take place within advanced industrial societies as Marx and Engels predicted, something quite like it did occur on the global level” (3). We’ve sent our proletariat to China, India, Taiwan—all of the countries whose names appear on the “Made in….” labels on clothes. As easily as globalization made it possible for us, the global bourgeoisie, to separate ourselves from the proletariat, it is only a matter of time before globalization gives the proletariat means to recognize the injustice that is inflicted upon them, and to remedy avenge their situation, be it a global revolution or just an economic crash.

True, a global-scale communist revolution would not work, at least in the next hundred-or-so years, because the world is not yet unified enough that a successful system could be put in place after the revolution. Wasn’t that one of the problems with the Soviets’ attempt at it? “[Communist revolution] can begin in less-developed Russia, but there can be no ‘Socialism in One Country’ there or anywhere else” (5), Averni says. The Cold War was not what Marx had in mind for interactions between communist and capitalist countries. In order for Marx’s vision to realize, nations must first gain each other’s trust. Communism relies on cooperation, so in order for it to work effectively, the world would have to be much more unified than it is now.

In that case, why not stick with capitalism? It’s working for us at the moment… or is it? With the global financial crisis, we begin to realize that cooperation will be necessary for the survival of the human race. In this cooperation comes the evening out of class differences. It’s quite possible that through capitalism we could achieve many of the ends of communism, but to do this, we must not be averse to considering the adoption of some socialist policies. Obama has been accused of being too “red” in his policies for Americans, but at the moment, we need some socialism to help fix the problems created by capitalism. With an ever- more unified world, something close to Marx’s communism might be inevitable someday. We do not need a revolution, but in the end, after all of our reforms, a state that resembles communism might just be the most just solution to many of the world’s problems.

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The undeniable fact is that poverty is worshipped in America. While class mobility is held as the highest regard in American ideals, it is hardly a reality for the vast majority of those that fall below the poverty line. Ignoring the rich who worship the separation between the masses and themselves, the fact of the matter is that mobility is more of the American myth than the American dream for so many in this country.

This is of course, not to say that any one person likes being poor. However, it is clear that is a wide culture in America that discourages success for minorities and lower socioeconomic classes. So while it is not the man or the American institutions that love poverty, there is a culture in place that discourages the single most important factor in escaping poverty: education.

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx writes that, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”[1]. In his view societies have always been pitting the oppressor against the oppressed in a never-ending battle of class against class. While some have suggested that class struggle is really no longer present in modern day America, there is still a sharp divide between the wealthy and the poor. While we may not live in the 1850’s era of unregulated capitalism, brutal factory conditions and societies that did not allow many to vote or take part in the government, the gradient that separates the classes is still quite sharp.

But why is this? All children in America are told they can be whatever they want to be. Everyone loves a ‘rags to riches’ story. A grocery store worker becomes an NFL M.V.P. quarterback (Kurt Warner)*, a Harvard dropout becomes an extremely successful businessman (Bill Gates)* and a single parent raises a child to become the US president (Barack Obama). But for every person who achieves this American dream there are countless thousands that do not**. This should spark outrage and discontent. The United States of America should not allow there to be millions without food and shelter. However those falling into poverty do not organize and revolt but instead complacently fall deeper and deeper into debt and poverty. The reason so many are able to just accept their stagnant role in the proletariat class is that in America many have been taught to love and worship their poverty.

I had a somewhat unique perspective as my high school draws students from across the Greater Hartford area. For every middle-to-upper class suburbanite in my school, there was another student from inner city Hartford. On the very first day we all had to introduce ourselves to the entire incoming freshman class. One student’s introduction shocked me at the time and has stayed with me for all of these years. He ended his introduction by saying, “Oh, and I wear glasses because I am blind, not because I’m smart.” I later learned that he was, in fact, very smart but he had been taught all of his life that appearing smart or liking school was a bad thing. Even at this intensive college prep high school, he still believed that it would be bad to make a first impression as someone who liked school and education.

Throughout my four years at my high school it became apparent to me again and again that education was not valued in the lower socioeconomic cultures. It was clear that many otherwise intelligent and dedicated students felt a need to appear to dislike school and act dumb because to act otherwise would be social suicide. Even after these students no longer felt the need to act in such a way, many of the problems still remained. When my friends were accepted to outstanding colleges across the country, I heard many frustrated stories about how their parents did not want them leaving Connecticut and would have preferred for them to go to community college or the local universities (and while there certainly is nothing wrong with attending community college or any of the state universities in Connecticut, they certainly would not get the same opportunities that would present themselves at some of the most renowned colleges in the world).

In his manifesto, Marx paints a picture of the bourgeoisie preying on the proletariats, writing, “No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, and he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc”[2]. However, in the modern culture there is more working against the working class than there ever has been. In addition to the landlord and the shopkeeper, there is also an entire culture that stands in the way of the American Dream. It has become cool to drop out of school and not go to college. And while college may not be right for everyone, too many students that could succeed given the right opportunities, fail as they are products of their culture: a culture that worships poverty.

*Much of these two stories are myth as well. Warner only bagged groceries for a few weeks waiting for a spot on an NFL roster to open up after leaving Euro-league football and Gates was able to live off his (wealthy) parents’ money.

**See the 1.5 million homeless [3] Americans and 50 million living in “food insufficient” homes [4]

Footnotes

  1. Marx 789
  2. Marx 802
  3. National Alliance to End Homelessness
  4. McGreal 11/17/09

Works Cited

Marx, Karl, The Communist Manifesto, Wootton, David, ed. Modern Political Thought: Readings form Machiavelli to Nietzsche (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishers, 2009)

McGreal, Chris. “Record Numbers Go Hungry In The US.” The Guardian. 17 Nov. 2009. Web. 14 Dec. 2009. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/17/millions-hungry-households-us-report&gt;.

“Publication Library: Homelessness Looms as Potential Outcome of Recession.” National Alliance to End Homelessness. Web. 14 Dec. 2009. <http://www.endhomelessness.org/content/general/detail/2161&gt;.

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Two-Face Marx

               Karl Marx can be seen two people, one who documented history as it was, and the other who was a political activist. The two, however, seem to be disjointed at times in his writings. Marx says in The Communist Manifesto, “…We traced the more or less veiled civil war…up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat,” (804). He also says, “[The bourgeoisie’s] fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable,” (804). Marx documents that society has moved through history from before feudalism, to feudalism, to capitalism, and will inevitably move to “Communism” as he calls it. Activist Marx, on the other hand, calls for a revolution and wants this progression of society to happen now, saying that, as a result of the oppression faced by the proletariat, they will form “Trades’ Unions” and will start a revolution. He calls them to act now saying, “WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!” (815). I wonder, if Marx truly thought his ideas of the progression of society were inevitable, why he chose to call for action instead of letting his prophecy fulfill itself. History had moved along, up to that point, just as Marx documented, and it had progressed steadily without Marx calling for the move into feudalism or the move into capitalism. Why, then, does Marx not let society continue to move forward on this path? Why does he interrupt it and call for action instead of letting the proletariat rise up when they are ready, if he believes this to be historically inevitable?
               Since Marx’s ideas of Communism (a world without property or a class distinction between oppressors and oppressed) were published, “progression” of society has happened in some parts of the world. Leaders such as Lenin have risen up and led revolutions in hopes of a society with much the same ideals as Marx laid down for Communism. These leaders, however, in acting so enthusiastically, have distinguished themselves from the classless societies they have tried to create, thus not really reaching Marx’s goals. Communism, as it has been executed thus far throughout history, is nothing like what Marx wanted. These countries, however, do identify with Communism and Marxism, terms stemming from Marx himself and his term coined in The Communist Manifesto, thus leading to the reasonable conclusion that these leaders were influenced by Marx’s writing. Many countries throughout the world identify with these terms, and therefore reveal that they were, in fact, influenced by Marx. These countries would not have acted in the same manor or under these same leaders had they not been called to action by The Communist Manifesto, as well as told exactly what type of society to set up, though they have not successfully fulfilled this ideal. So, in interrupting the natural progression of society as Marx documents it, he ruins the ideal, classless society that may have come from capitalism by not letting it stem from society naturally and rather pushing for it to happen before the world was ready for it.

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The German Ideology and Japan

After reading Marx and Engles The German Ideology it was apparent that based on their definition of a tribes, ancient communal and feudal systems still existed even in this fast paced so called modern world. Most people would tend to assume that these kinds of systems are in place in third world countries in places such as Africa. However, even rapidly growing economic and technological countries such as Japan harbor communities that still are considered to be a part of tribal ownership based on The German Ideology. One place particular has been identified, the small southern Japanese island of Kyushu is “a world away from the bustling urban centers of Tokyo and Osaka and a place that still holds tight to its traditions” (Hayes, 1). A reporter from CNN news was fortunate enough to talk with a prominent member of the community and discuss the tribal systems that have been in place for many years and are still in place on the island. The interview began with the mention of small things such as the fact that men’s clothing would be hung on trees higher than women’s clothing so that it would drip onto the women’s clothing, therefore allowing the men’s to dry faster. Men and women even washed their clothes separately. The woman being interviewed would bow to her husband whenever he walked in the door in a submissive manner.
This island has additional aspects that are based on tribal and communal ownership. This was a community of more fortunate people who fell under the noble and honorable category of the military. The community members would all work together for their benefit and protection. “In the tribal phase of ownership the division of labor is still very undeveloped and confided to the natural division of labor in the family” (Wooton, 776). The island of Kyushu is home to patriarchal family order and the majority of the men are samurai warriors. The interviewer from Japan uses the term feudal loosely to describe the members of Kyushu, however it is clear that the island is closer to tribal ownership. The island is set up for communal protection “designed to be defended successfully against surprise attack. If necessary, the main street could be flooded to become a moat. If any invader got past that they were faced by thick, wooden doors and zig-zag paths any of whose blind corners could hide an irate householder with a very sharp sword” (Hayes, 1). The island also displays it’s patriarchal and tribal society roots in the fact that women were to bow to men as they entered the room within the homes of Kyushu. There is a clear sexual division of labor and customs on this island. Unfortunately Marx only addresses class separation in The German Ideology and does not address the problem of a sex struggle. This island continues to keep their heritage strong, resisting invasions from imperial Great Britain and commemorating WWII Kamakazies. The question now is whether or not this sexual struggle is still acceptable in today’s twenty-first century. Is this society an exception to the rule because they are trying to preserve their heritage? Or should they move forward from their tribal ownership and begin to treat the sexes equally not only in labor but socially?

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A specter looms over the Music Industry—threatening the present social order of proletariat artist and the bourgeoisie record executive. Like many of the products we buy, music is something that we enjoy every day, but are completely oblivious to the exploitative systems by which it is created. The glimmering facade of wealth, power, and happiness displayed in music videos is in stark contrast to the reality of the industry. This blog post will draw analogies from modern Industry to the Music Industry in order to provide you with a better understanding of Marx’s philosophies.

The history of all musical production is that of class struggles. From the ancient times of the simple African drum circle, to feudal aristocratic patronage, to modern day auto-tuned international pop, the methods of producing music, and the organizational social structures surrounding it, have been in constant flux and revolution. “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebein, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman… (Marx 798)”—record executive and artist. By definition bourgeoisie is “…the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage-labour.” And proletariant is “…the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live. (Marx 798)” As you can see, there are distinct similarities that can be drawn between that of the record executive and the bourgeoisie and that of the musical artist and the proletariat. The present system of oppression, maintained by the record companies and bourgeoisie executives, began to form in the late 20th century(1).

The driving force behind the modern system is that of musical recordings, which, through various methods, can be recorded, stored, and distributed—all without the artist stepping foot outside of a recording studio. In the past, the social unit of music, much like the family, was the band. Most musical interactions took place between members of the band, and their audience. The members of the band were insuperable form their natural capital of musical talent and the name they acquired for themselves through the use of that talent. This was all changed with the advent of the first phonograph in the United States in 1877(2). “Unlike modern capital which can be appraised monetarily and invested in this thing or that, this natural capital was directly tied up with the particular work of the owner, was insuperable from it…(Marx 790)” The technological advance of being able to separate the artists from their music—natural capital—was the critical step in the creation of the modern Music Industry.

This separation of the artist from their works, both intellectually and physically, lead to the immediate and rapid development of division of labor regarding the production of modern music. No longer is the artist solely responsible for imagining, creating, and playing his or her music. This responsibility is divided amongst an army of professional musical composers, lyricists, audio producers, sound engineers, recording studio staff, and marketeers all play a specialized role in the production of today’s mass-market music. “Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labor, the work of proletarians has lost all individual character, and , consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine… (Marx 802)” <queue Pink Floyd’s smash-hit…>.  Thus music no longer becomes a pleasure for those working on it, it becomes merely toil and chore.

The added artistic value created by these workers is kept by the record company as profits. Often times artists are forced by companies to adopt stage name in order for the record company to maintain legal rights over both the artist’s music and their name. Take, for example, “The artist formerly known as Prince”. In 1993, a legal battle erupted surrounding the ownership of Prince’s name and musical works. Prince states:

The first step I have taken towards the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol. Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros…”

Prince’s statements eerily mirror the feelings and goals of proletariats and communists alike. To free themselves from their enslavement by bourgeoisie, to reclaim what is naturally theirs, and to put a stop to the bourgeoisie’s exploitation of the artist.

ARTISTS OF ALL COMPANIES, UNITE!

Sources:

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Wooton, 2008.

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Wooton, 2008

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_sound_recording
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonograph
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_(musician)
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music

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