One Hundred and thirty seven years after his death,Karl Marx remains one of the most polarizing figures in our political landscape. Everyone seems to have an opinion on Marx. His critics see him as an irredemable evil totalitarian thinker while his proponents see him as a modern day-prophet. After carefully scourging through popular(but not the most intellectually rigorous) conservative and right leaning criticisms of Marx,I have come to the conclusion that most people have not read Marx beyond “The Communist Manifesto”. As any Marxist thinker would tell you, “The Communist Manifesto” is the worst place to start if you want to get a comprehensive view of Marx’s critic of capitalism. This text, as the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton points out, is a piece of “political propaganda, and as such is full of rhetorical flourishes.”
Popular conservatives are not just wrong in their interpretation of Marxism. They are actually hillariously and embarassingly wrong. To illustrate this, let us pay attention to a man who has been called “the deepest,clearest voice of conservative thought in the world today”. Yes, we’re talking about Jordan B. Peterson. In a discussion with Joe Rogan(and numerous other places), Peterson talks about how Stalinism was an “inevitable consequence of the Marxist system”. What is the goal? Equality of outcome. Our Jungian Hero bravely dismantles Marx by asking “what measure of outcome? You can multiply the dimensions of evalutations between people innumerably. So, everyone has to be equally happy in their relationships?Because there is no place to stop,there will be no stopping. Nothing but a tyrannical system could impose that.”
I absolutely agree with Dr. Peterson. So do Marx and Engels. In 1875, the Social Democratic Party released a party manifesto called “Gotha program” elucidating their goals. One of the goals cited in that manifesto was “the elimination of all social and political inequality”. In other words, equality of outcome. Engels responded by calling it “a most dubious expression”. He wrote “living conditions will always evince a certain inequality which may be reduced to a minimum but never wholly eliminated.”
Marx wrote an entire tract critiquing the Gotha program. One of his primary objection was the manner in which “equal rights” was formulated. Marx pointed out that individuals were different. Some are superior to others “physically, or mentally”. He derided equal rights of the manifesto as a “bourgeois right”. Marx explicitly points out that people have unequal outcomes and needs. He writes “Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.”
This is very different from today’s progressive conception of equality. Many progressives today actually do advocate for near absolute equality. This leads people to argue for ridiculous propositions. The former prison warden Tekla Miller, for instance, has argued about how men and women prisoners should be treated in the same manner. Thus, women’s prisons should have equal weapon allocations and women escapees should be shot by guards just as men escapees are shot. The Marxist political activists Angela Davis rightly points out that these “liberal” and “formalistic notions of equality” allows “male prisons to function as the punishment norm.” According to Davis, “a more productive form of feminism would question the organization of state punishment for men as well.”
Conservatives treat Marxism as a dogma. Every “socialist” is supposed to believe and advocate for a totalitarian communist state. This is not true. Yes, there are ultra leftists and naive social justice warriors(to use their phrase) who do advocate for violent communist revolution. But these are only a minority. Most left-leaning thinkers today advocate for worker co-ops,social policies like universal health care and democracy. A cursory glance at the works of Marxist economist Richard Wolff, libertarian socialist Noam Chomsky,David Harvey& Yanis Varoufakis would lead anyone to come to this conclusion. Disagreement with social democratic policies is obviously fine. It is an argument worth having. However, painting all socialists with the same brush actually harms the conservatives in their fight against progressive identitarians. In fact, Marx barely critiqued conservatives. Most of his criticism was directed at social democrats(today’s progressives),anarchists and variants of socialism that he disagreed with. As we’ve seen, there is a Marxist argument to be made against not only equality of outcome but also against postmodernism(Eagleton,1996).
If one treats Marxism as a dogma, then it becomes very easy to use Marx to criticize today’s neo-Marxists. Unfortunately, conservatives rarely do it, even though they label every socialist as “Marxist”. It is actually very easy to critique today’s progressives using Marx as a starting point. Marx believed that socialism cannot be achieved in depleted societies. For him, capitalism was a progressive and necessary force. Industrial societies, he argued, will reduce scarcity, thus creating the conditions needed to usher in communism. A “high degree of development” is “an absolutely necessary practical premise”. A society with “destitution”, “struggling for necessities” will result in “old filthy business”(same old story). In absence of these conditions, the so-called socialist society will turn into an autocracy. This is exactly what happened in Soviet Union. The Soviet Union went from being a feudal society to a socialist bureacracy. Thus, missing the essential condition of capitalism. In fact, Marx actually encouraged free trade as socialism can only arrive in a country where capitalism has reached its limits. Shouldn’t self-described Marxists in India, then, encourage free market and industrialization as India is still “struggling for necessities”?
I do not want to elaborate on merits of Marx’s critique of capitalism as it has been done too many times before. Interested readers can check out David Harvey’s Companion to Capital for a concise summary. I will, however, mention Bakunin’s critique of Marx’s transitional “dictatorship of proletariat”. This has been opposed by many other socialist thinkers but the anarchist Bakunin was the first to formulate a coherent criticism. He pointed out that dictatorship,by its very nature, is a form of enslavement. “all dictatorship has no objective other than self-perpetuation”, wrote Bakunin, “and that slavery is all it can generate and instill in the people who suffer it. Freedom can be created only by freedom” I urge you to read the whole critique as its very engaging as well as relevant.
Capitalism alienates workers from their own work. They are often forced to do jobs against their own will. They do not own the means of production, as a result of which they feel disconnected with their work. They become, in other words, just a cog in the machine. Their value is reduced to a thing. An object.
The epidemiologist Michael Mormot has conducted studies on mortality rates among British civil servants. He found that those who occupied the lowest hierarchy were more susceptible to Coronary Heart Disease. Health becomes better the higher you rise up the hierarchy. Mormot terms this as the “status syndrome”. Could this be due to relative poverty? No. Research has shown that PhD. students have better mortality rates than those with bachelors degree. A similar pattern can be found in the US, where blacks have 9 years shorter life expectancy than that of blacks in Cuba despite earning 4 times more. It’s not money which is leading this health epidemic. Its the position that one occupies in the hierarchy. Its about how one is treated in a society relative to others. Its about the degree of control that one has over their work. Mormot’s findings suggests that individuals who have a higher degree of control over their work, who are engaged willingly are less likely to become depressed than those earning the same salary,with the same status, working in the same office.
It isn’t just work from which individuals are alienated. Marx pointed four types of alienation. We are now more alienated than ever from others, from our peers and fellow members of our species. The psychologist Martha McClintock’s research has shown that social isolation in mice not only increases stress but also makes them more susceptible to spontaneous tumors. Susan Pinker has written about how isolated people have lower mortality rates. On a superficial level, it might seem like social media has made us more connected. This is far from true. In fact, those who use social media are more likely to be depressed.
A common criticism of Marx is that he didn’t believe in nature. This isn’t true. In fact, it was the enlightenment thinker Locke who didn’t believe in nature. The modern form of the blank slate derives from him. Marx, on the other hand, repeatedly refers to nature. In Capital-Vol-1, for instance, Marx refers to labour as a “process in which both man and nature participate”. He refers to man as a “natural living being”. However, Marx is not a determinist. He believes that man is a creative being and has the potential to transform the world around him. This is scientifically accurate. The society we have organized is in rebellion against our “selfish genes” as Dawkins points out. The likes of Peterson often resort to naturalistic fallacy veering on social darwinism(a discarded pseudoscientific idea). Marx, on the other hand, points to “human-essense” or “species-essence” in his last form of alienation. It is “imagination” which distinguishes humans from other animals. There is an intrinsic potential in humans to be free and to be creative. This is obstructed by external social forces. Humans are subjected to work for others. To acchieve their true individuality,they must free themselves from the demands of their conditioning.
The separation between consumers and the product leads to commodity fetishism.
What is commodity fetishism? In simple words, the idea that commodities are more important than human beings. The easiest way to explain it is through advertisements.
In 1978, two psychologists conducted an experiment to assess the impact of advertisement on kids. One group was shown commercials of a toy while the other wasn’t. Both were given an option:- they can either choose to play with a terrible kid who has a toy or they can play with a kid who doesn’t have a toy but who’s nice. The group which were exposed to commercials choose to play with the nasty kid with a toy. They prioritized an object, a toy over a human being. They decided to choose this despite the fact that this made them unhappy
Commodity fetishism ensures you keep wanting more. You’ll never see an advertisement which asks you to be satisfied,to be content with your life. They want you to have more. You have to be imperfect in order for them to sell things, whether its fairness creams or a new dress. These commodities become status symbols. You are looked upon as an ideal if you own the latest version iPhone. It is the commodity which takes primacy,not you. The commodity almost defines your identity. There is an illusion of individuality to it all. You think you choose the products you want to buy when you’re being obviously bombarded by messages from mass media. The commodity starts defining your happiness. The French Marxist Guy Debord later expanded this concept. He called it the society of the spectacle. A society where the commodities rule us. We become mere agents. Détournement is the method by which one uses conventional form of mainstream expressions i.e. movies,painting,meme,music etc. to deliver subversive messages. A good example of this would be the work of the anonymous grafitti artist Banksy.
My intention,through this article, wasn’t to give a general introduction of Marx. I wanted to show the complexity of thought underlying Marx. Yet, I have barely touched the surface. One can write pages and pages on Marx and it’d still not be enough. His ideas will continue to permeate sociology(he was one of the founders of the discipline),history,politics,philosophy and economics for a long time to come. As I have pointed out before, Marx has his shortcomings but so does every thinker. There is more than enough reason to take Marx seriously.