The Marxist Political Economy and The Paradigm of Unbridled Development
A look at how Marxist principles explain the sweep of globalization over the world economy, its implications, and how ultimately it will lead to
capitalism producing its own grave diggers from a displaced middle class.
Few populate the realm of those who retain their relevance more than a century after their deaths. Though many are read, studied, and emulated rarely do the great thinkers produced from the Enlightenment and into the nineteenth century have ideas applicable to the modern world. Since their writings there have been three complete waves of democratization that have transformed the political landscape of the world, a world that was populated with monarchs and empires when they wrote about, analyzed, and observed it. Of the thinkers who retain a degree of relevance fewer yet have begat revolutions, modes of political analysis, and even techniques of literary critique. Then of course, none of them foretold the mass globalization, advent of free trade, and grandiose expansion of the capitalist free market or of its downfall as did Karl Marx.
Karl Marx utilized the dialectical method, a system adapted from Hegel as a ‘Young Hegelian’ and used by Aristotle before Hegel. Hegel was of the belief that society was rife with contradictions, a condition occurring when two social variables are incompatible to be in coexistence for the long term that would lead to harmonious resolutions. These resolutions would provide a great deal of unity and tranquility in Hegel’s view. Karl Marx was of the belief that society was indeed comprised of a grand system of contradictions, but differed in that he felt that these contradictions resulted in conflict which would eventually spur into violent revolution and change, particularly in the capitalist system.
Marx introduced a great deal of historical analysis and found that all economic systems since recorded history began have involved class divisions and economic inequalities where wealth is appropriated upward from a lower class to a ruling class. Slaves created wealth that was appropriated to masters, serfs generated wealth to lords, and the lords would use this wealth in conjunction with the advent of private property to become capitalists, or the bourgeoisie, who exploit the labor of wage workers or the proletariat. With these class distinctions come contradictions that eventually weaken the system and lead to its change into another, more compatible system. Marx saw this as a long running evolution that would eventually create a classless society and mode of production which he saw as communism.
Integral to his study of capitalism is his perception of the aims of capitalism, which is ostensibly to take capital, invest it into creating a product, and selling that commodity for more than it took to manufacture it taking into consideration the costs of raw materials, facilities, and fuel which are static charges and the variable cost of wages paid to the workers who operate the means of production, which they do not own. That money is then reinvested to create more capital, and the cycle is repeated until losses exhaust the capital and one falls from the high ranks of the bourgeoisie or until one dies.
What this creates, according to Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 is alienation for both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The proletariat is alienated from the goods it creates which Marx saw as an essential part of labor, the ability to enjoy the products of one’s labor. As Marx states it:
“The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the objet and bondage to it.” (Marx, 2002, p. 833)
Also, the worker is alienated from other human beings as capitalism, in Marx’s view, has created a system of exchange where human relationships are replaced by cash transactions; this idea is elaborated in 1876’s Capital with the concept of the fetishism of commodities where goods take on meanings not inherent to the product itself and human beings begin treating others as objects. And the worker is alienated from the capital that they generate, which has been appropriated upward to the bourgeoisie. This system of upward appropriation of wealth eventually creates two classes after the middle class fades into the proletariat which possesses interests diametrically opposed to that of the bourgeoisie.
Marx was a historical materialist, seeing the superstructures of society stemming from material relations and the impact of economic systems upon social institutions. As the bourgeoisie will be in charge of creating policy by the very nature of democratic politics, and thus will have a great degree of control over the education system, education, on the level of state provided education, becomes a source of indoctrination and a means to subordinate the proletariat. The bourgeoisie also manipulates religion and creates social constructs to both subordinate the proletariat and create infighting within the proletariat. In essence, the proletariat is a group living in similar economic conditions, as are the bourgeoisie, therefore they comprise a class in themselves. However, until they gain class consciousness and realize that they have interest in contradiction to those of the bourgeoisie they are not a class for themselves. This is a point of contention that the bourgeoisie take seriously and have deployed a number of tactics to prevent the proletariat from becoming a class for itself such as the doctrine of predestination in Puritanical sects of Christianity. This doctrine stated that one was destined, upon birth, to go to heaven or hell and that this fate was irrefutable and not subject to change. The job of the worshiper was to work hard for signs of their fate, these signs were interpreted as financial success and thus the protestant ethic that Weber would explore was born. (Chomsky, 2006, pp. 110-156)
The bourgeoisie also use race, ethnicity, and difference of religious preference to their advantage. A prime example is today’s struggle over immigration in the United States where mostly blue collar workers adamantly and sometimes violently resist the influx of Mexican immigrants because they are, in their view, taking their jobs. What this creates is a struggle within a class, the proletariat, that prevents them from discovering their mutual position in opposition to the bourgeoisie and to recognize the shared exploitation that they are being subjected to. Racial prejudices that gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan and like groups kept the proletariat fighting against itself. That is why, in Marx’s view stated in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, in order to establish a classless society private property, religion, and the family due to its inherent financial obligations that facilitate ones subjugation by the capitalists must be abolished.
Marx saw capitalism as a necessary step to communism, a system that had put into place the infrastructure, machinery, and facilitated the acquisition of knowledge in order to build a flourishing capitalist system. He cited the United States as an optimal breeding ground for a revolution of the proletariat, where the working class would rise as one and overtake the bourgeoisie, seizing their property and thus the means of production due to its advanced state of democracy and its innovative farming techniques, abundance of natural resources, and modern infrastructure.
The problem is that the revolution did not occur here. V. Lenin interpreted Marx’s work and applied it to Russia, which was a Czarist Agrarian society at the time. Aside from not being the optimal economic climate in which to stage a proletariat revolution, Lenin interpreted the revolution to be led by elites who would establish a strong central government to subordinate the people and, more or less, force them into a classless society. After Lenin’s death, the Soviet Union was born and the communist party, to which Marx was inextricably tied via his writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, lost a great deal of relevance and support and became villiafied, particularly in America. Numerous third world countries would follow suit and, going by Marx’s model, predictably failed.
This leads many to state that Marx himself has lost his relevance. What they fail to see is that these so called Marxist revolutions were launched on perversions of Marx’s work, interpretations that ignored large tracts of his works particularly anything written after the Communist Manifesto. Particularly what many fail to recognize is a central contradiction in the capitalist system that will, at some point in time, lead to its implosion if a proletariat revolution fails to dismantle the system beforehand.
The contradiction is this. In order for a capitalist to be successful, he must put less money into a product than he gets out of it. Thus, as the product sales for more than raw materials, overhead, and labor put together then the amount paid to laborers in wages falls far short than the total exchange value of goods on the market at a given time. Eventually, once there are no new markets to conquer, the findings of which made capitalism a viable system to begin with starting in the late 15th century with the dawn of mass exploration, and no new labor markets to exploit then the system will reach an end from which there is no return. There will be an inevitable mass surplus of goods, which is unsatisfactory in a capitalist system because in a market where supply exceeds demand, price falls. When price falls, profits disappear and so too do the capitalists. The bourgeoisie knows this and thus much of the economic policies of the last twenty years can be explained through Marxist interpretations.
The need to expand both markets for goods and for labor has created the paradigm that is commonly referred to as globalization and has created a vocabulary all its own with terms like free trade zones, outsourcing, and the transnational or multinational corporation. The bourgeoisie used their influence to make all of this legal by creating systems outside of the system that transcend borders like the World Trade Organization that work to propagate the transnational corporation and explore more native peoples living in abject poverty in the wake of failed pseudo-Marxist revolutions in South America, Asia and Mexico. Particularly of importance in America, NAFTA was passed in 1994. NAFTA, or the North American Free Trade Agreement allowed companies from America and Canada to relocate into Mexico along the northern border.
Previous to the passage of NAFTA, there were factories called maquiladoras along the border of Mexico, however they were restricted to producing textiles as part of the Bracero program in 1964 which intended to develop the region. After NAFTA, all companies were permitted to move into the region. Today over three thousand factories exist in the maquila region. They produce items ranging from textiles to petrochemicals and automotive parts. Work hours are extraordinarily long. The typical maquiladora work week ranged from sixty-five hours to eighty hours, depending upon the type of factory and the type of work being done. This accomplishes two things, it allows for cheap production of goods as workers are rarely paid overtime, and even if they are it occurs long after the point at which American workers would be paid and it installs a younger workforce with a lower degree of longevity at the factory. The longer a worker is in the factory the more likely he or she is to demand a wage increase or attempt to unionize. (Sciences, 1999)
Wages are also remarkably low. The typical maquiladora worker makes about $1.00 per hour, substantially less than the manufacturing sector average within Mexico and far below American wages. Furthermore the cost of living in Mexican border towns is comparable to small towns in the United States. Thus the wages barely, if even, cover expense of living and certainly do not allow for any extra capital that could be used to buy luxury items, invest in the infrastructure of the community or to develop the local economy. The bourgeoisie is actively attempting to install a permanent proletariat. The conditions are similar in over eighty free trade zones throughout the world, and apparently enough new exploitive labor markets were not secured as congress passed CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2007. (Durazo, 2000)
In America the consequences have been two fold. Immediately and most recognizable to Americans is the expanded availability of goods that are, in the short term affordable. However, everyone from Lou Dobbs to Noam Chomsky has pointed out that the middle class is disappearing and that the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing, and has been since Reagan’s deregulation policies of the 1980’s and the launch of the neoconservative movement which holds free market capitalism and the trickle down theory of economics, which suffers from the camera obscura fallacy. As cheaper labor markets appear, corporations, despite of their intentions, are forced to move to areas where labor is cheaper in order to compete and to be as profitable as their competitors. Thus, the capitalists are themselves alienated from their species as, in order for them to survive as capitalists, they must exploit the labor of proletariats to the greatest degree possible. ( (Weller, 2006))
At any rate, this diminishing of the middle class pushes more and more into the ranks of the proletariat. With a new segment of the proletariat having seen the capitalists in action it becomes more and more likely that they will become the grave diggers that Marx predicted that capitalism would ultimately create. (Marx 2002) So, although it seems as though Marx might be irrelevant, if one looks closer they can observe that he was simply ahead of his time and that the economic and resulting political crises that he foresaw have a groundwork in place to come into effect in the relatively near future.
Though this analysis has framed the ideas of global trade and free market capitalism in Marxist terms, Marx’s analyses of society can be applied to a myriad of social problems such as crime, poverty in general, or even serial monogamy via the fetishism of commodities. Unfortunately the popular perception of Marx in America has been marred by the stains of the Soviet Union and other pseudo-Marxist movements. The heavy hand of the bourgeoisie that has suppressed, historically, a great number of expressions of Marxist thought, has helped to keep the shutters closed so that the light cannot shine on the problems for all, the proletariat, to see.
Chomsky, N. (2006). Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Durazo, L. (2000, June). Maquiladora Information. Retrieved May 18, 2007, from Projecto fronterizo de Education Abiental.
Marx, K. (2002). Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy: Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Manifesto of the Communist Party. (S. M. Cahn, Ed.) London, UK: Oxford Press.
Sciences, F. f. (Director). (1999). Free Trade Slaves [Motion Picture].
Weller, J. B. (2006). Supersize This: How CEO PAy Took Off While America’s Middle Class Struggled. Center For American Progress .