I was a Marxist and didn’t know it. A few weeks ago, my good neighbor told me he’s a Marxist. When asked what that meant, he said among contemporary political figures, Bernie Sanders’ viewpoint, though basically socialist, aligns well with Marxist philosophy. Supporting Bernie’s platform but ambivalent about his run for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, I set out to learn about Marxism. At age 69, with no background in economics, I read Marx’s Capital for the first time and like other workers over the last 170 years, I was moved by its relevance to current events, occasional humor, and accounts of labor conditions in 19th century England.
Marx thought that capitalism requires a workforce that believes the capitalistic system benefits them… In general, I fall into [that] category but I’m not sure same could be said for the worker who sews my shirts.
Reading Capital was tedious at first, due to terminology that’s been out of usage since 1849. Commodity, value, labor power, means of production, and surplus value took on new shades of meaning. Commodities include all goods and services that fulfill a need in society; value is what we think of as monetary cost as well as the exchange of commodities for equivalent amounts of money or other commodities; labor power, a commodity itself, is labor for production of commodities; means of production represents land, buildings, mechanical energy, equipment, raw materials and all else needed for the production of commodities except labor power; and surplus value is value greater than the labor power and means of production needed to produce a commodity.
Gradually, a compellingly simple economic model of capitalism began to take shape. Marx saw capitalism as the circulation of value derived from the production of commodities. The capitalist exchanges the value he controls to acquire the means of production and labor power to produce commodities. Capitalism perpetuates itself through the exchange of commodities with the goal of creating surplus value.
Eliminating extraneous influences like interest rate, market conditions, and governmental policy, Marx’s model focuses on the underlying principles driving capitalism. Exhaustively analyzing the circulation and exchange of value under a wide range of assumptions, Capital is too detailed and abstract to be absorbed in one reading. On the other hand, patient reading reveals key points humorously amplified by the experiences of the hypothetical capitalist Mr. Moneybags, and when Marx draws conclusions about the nature of capitalism they are clear, simply stated, and apply as well today as they did in the 19th century. After a lifetime of working for wages and in view of recent history, some stand out.
Insights gleaned from reading Marx
As Mr. Moneybags discovered, labor is the only commodity that can be exchanged for more value than it takes to acquire it, i.e. for a profit. One result is an uneasy interdependence between capitalist and worker, each bound to the other in spite of conflicting needs. The capitalist aims to maximize profit and accumulate value (capital) while the worker seeks to maximize compensation for his labor and improve his quality of life. Marx showed that in a perfect market economy accumulation of value always overrides the needs of workers. Examples of intolerable working conditions during the industrialization of England are plentiful in Capital and Marx’s accounts of child labor, unhealthy working conditions, and attempted labor reforms co-opted by industrialists are extreme examples of that negative side of capitalism.
Today, for some of us at least, working conditions have improved in comparison to 19th century England. I’ve adjusted to working for wages and grown comfortable with the modest life style it provides. If my employer pays me $30 for work I do and charges his customer $90 for the product, allowing for overhead and profit, that seems like a reasonable arrangement. I make money, he makes money, his customer (perhaps another worker) receives a good product, and in the process my employer buys raw materials and equipment from other capitalists, and the circulation of value goes on.
At the same time, I’m aware that many of the commodities that make my life comfortable, not the least of which are clothing, furniture, and auto parts, are affordable because they’re produced by workers who endure conditions little better than Marx described. The current trend favoring offshore manufacturing correlates to Marx’s observation that because capital intensive processes produce profit at a higher rate they are preferred over labor intensive processes. In Marx’s time, England kept capital intensive textile manufacturing at home and relegated more labor intensive agricultural production of cotton to the US and other countries. Today we keep management of production and distribution of goods at home and relegate manufacturing to other countries. Marx thought that capitalism requires a workforce that believes the capitalistic system benefits them and/or a workforce constrained to work by circumstances. In general, I fall into the former category but I’m not sure same could be said for the worker who sews my shirts.
Another of Marx’s conclusions about capitalism seems especially relevant today—ironically capitalism is self- perpetuating but it requires unlimited growth to sustain itself. One often publicized goal of the Federal Reserve is to maintain a healthy economic growth rate of a few percent per year. Marx pointed out that investing capital with the goal of creating more capital results in unlimited accumulation of value (economic growth). That implies a workforce of unlimited size as well as an unlimited supply of consumers. Current environmental concerns, world population projected to reach 8 billion in 2023 and 12 billion by the end of the century, and a US population growth rate of 0.62% down from 1.4% in 1992, suggest we may be reaching limits to unrestrained growth unforeseen by Marx.
Two more of Marx’s theories seem to be validated by current events. One is that capitalism maintains itself by accumulating value while the workforce maintains a stable standard of living. The result is an inequitable distribution of wealth. At the same time, the circulation of value favors concentration of wealth. Today the richest 1% hold about 38% of all privately held wealth in the United States, while the bottom 90% hold 73.2% of all debt, and according to The New York Times, the richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The other theory, that the more technically advanced the society, the faster capitalism takes hold, seems to be borne out by fairly rapid movement toward capitalistic economies in Russia and China.
Marx and Capital have been studied, analyzed and written about extensively and much of the analysis and writing is as abstract and dense as Capital itself. But after some patient reading, I found that Marx’s thoughts in the original form are accessible and seem to speak to the average worker as well as to trained economists. It may be a personal bias resulting from a life of working for wages, but in spite of its short comings I think there are some good things about capitalism not the least of which is the technological innovation it fosters, and I doubt that it’s going away any time soon. At the same time, I found Capital to be challenging but rewarding reading. Marx’s philosophy is relevant to the causes of many environmental, political, and social problems today and it’s a useful tool for predicting the success of their proposed solutions.
Now would I vote for Bernie or a candidate with similar views? Yes, I would.
Fred Atkinson, once an oilfield worker, civil engineer, and teacher. Retired for now he spends his time canoeing and stand up paddle boarding around Grays Harbor.