A serial journal of cogent reflections and irreverent insights on the social effects of capitalism and the roots of partisan politics. Pairing prose with HDR photography and “flash points” drawn from current and historical perspectives, the author seeks to recover lost wisdom and courageous action beyond the shouting and noise of today's headlines.
The Dark Prophet
Part I: Communism's Shadow
Time Range: 1867-1883, 2012
For Marx, violence was the only real solution. In the Manifesto, read out loud in his accent and lisp to revolutionaries at the Red Lion Pub, he declared that the specter of communism haunted those who would hold on to power. “The Communists,” he stated, “openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social relations. Let the ruling classes tremble …”
This was Marx, like the clownish homicidal character of the Joker in Batman movies, having his moment of grandiosity. Not only was economic reform not enough; all social relations must be overthrown, and solely by the force of violence could we know it was done. Here are the pathological roots, still in theoretical formulation, that gave sustenance to those who would fashion tyrannical forms of collectivist organization, figures such as Stalin and Mao. They would declare themselves the embodiment of the collective and speak on its behalf. They would fashion a classless society because they said so, and disagreement would not be tolerated. It is one of the great ironies of capitalism that some of its leading proponents advise the same course, warning against discussion of class and economic distribution as if it were sinister or subversive.
Marx made no real pretense that he understood or even cared about what the future would look like from a humanistic perspective. Instead, his style of argument and forceful ways of generating polarization became a bedrock orientation for future organizers. Playing off of frustration and despair, Communism held out the promise that the oppressed suffered but their suffering would be redeemed by revolution. The attraction of communism was not so much a shared image of a better world for all as a belief that your fate would be linked with the side that would inevitably come to power. The wait was painful and exhausting. In one letter to Engels, Marx wrote:
My wife is ill. Little Jenny is ill. Lenchen has a sort of nervous fever and I can’t call in the doctor because I have no money to pay him. For about eight or ten days we have all been living on bread and potatoes and it is now doubtful whether we shall be able to get even that. … How am I to get out of this devilish mess? (Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers)
Nearly all of Marx’s interactions had a tone of confrontation, as if his personal frustrations could find release in the deconstruction of another’s ideas. He could be alternately eloquent, precise, inflammatory, and insulting with no constraint calling others “louts” and “bedbugs.” In one emblematic dispute with a potential ally, Pierre Proudhon, he seemed to set the bar for intolerance and accusations of betrayal. Proudhon had written a book titled What Is Property? and had accepted Marx’s invitation for collaboration with a letter asking that their collaboration be marked by “a learned and far-sighted tolerance; but simply because we are at the head of a new movement, let us not set ourselves up as leaders of a new intolerance. … On that condition, I shall be delighted to take part in your association — but otherwise, no!” (Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers)
Marx’s response was succinct and clear. He wrote a devastating critique of Proudhon’s new book, The Philosophy of Poverty, with the title “The Poverty of Philosophy.”
Marx argued that ideas didn’t matter, or more accurately, that ideas were simply products of the economic structure that spawned them and were never truly independent. What mattered were the materialist realities of what was produced and how it was produced, the terms by which products were exchanged, and the pivotal question of who benefited from ownership. Capitalists achieved dominance by controlling these variables while making unfathomable profits from the surplus labor of their workers. The logic extended not only to the production of widgets and wardrobes but also to food, fuel, medicine, housing, and health care.
What is fascinating about Marx and his legacy is how this materialist viewpoint, central to his critique of capital, remained so detached from moral ideas regarding oppression and suffering yet so completely propelled by them. Why else would it matter that one group vies for dominance over others if not for the morality underpinning human dignity, cooperation, and social justice?
The answer lies in the approach. Marx’s obsession with the mechanics of capitalism involved a regard for science as a debunking of falsehoods perpetuated by those in power. Marx composed his first major critique of the economy less than ten years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species and identified his work with discovering society’s “laws of motion” akin to Newton’s classical laws of motion for physical objects.
The arrogance associated with Marx arises from his self-imposed challenge to find the correct, objective, scientific understanding of history. With a quest like that, there could be no concession for the sake of compromise or soft influences such empathy, cooperation, and compassion. Cold hard logic must be the rule and it must be capable of predicting the future in no less certain terms than Newton’s equations about the orbits of the planets around the sun.
For Marx, it was scientifically incorrect to propose a static, unchanging order for social relations or a promise that capitalism would be the engine of never-ending progress toward the good. No, the tensions, conflicts, and contradictions of society were what propelled the motion of social relations forward, and capitalism was a temporary digression, holding the seeds of its own destruction. This was Marx’s dark prophecy. Let’s examine its major features.
At the core of the tensions Marx foresaw was the inability of businesses to permanently maintain their profits. Each time they achieved a rewarding valuation for their products or services, a countervailing force would increase their costs or force them to lower their prices. The threat may come from workers organizing for higher wages or from competitors competing on the price or quality of the commodity. However it came, it would set in motion an anxiety for returning to profitability and a fear of annihilation. Three direct consequences would follow from such a dilemma: the pursuit of growth, the ceaseless quest for labor saving technology, and business cycles of boom and bust.
Growth was virtually the only means to deal with shrinking profits, and it would engineer the need for excessive consumption of energy and other natural resources as dictated by the needs of the marketplace. Although Marx is not known for addressing ecological concerns, he predicted that the absence of any mitigating influence on capitalist laws of motion would result in undermining the “original sources of all wealth — the soil and the worker.” Businesses would treat the air, the rivers, the seas, and the soil as gifts provided them by nature, just as they would treat workers as part of a mathematical equation for profits.
The quest for labor-saving technology would be driven not by human need but by the requirements of growth. First and foremost, it would be directed by the need to minimize the costs of employing human labor and reduce the persistent wailing of workers for higher wages. Technology was simply the price for keeping up with or outrunning competitors, not a means to grow profits or lessen life’s hardships. The result would be an obsession with labor-saving technology that was independent of community or need. Marx believed that not only would technology not lighten the “toil” of human beings; it would be singularly preoccupied with reducing the cost of commodities by reducing the cost of human labor or eliminating human labor entirely. Labor-saving technology, for all its value, would be a defensive gesture, forcing us to speed up and multitask. Businesses, for their part, would need to constantly adapt to the new technological shifts or perish.
Finally, Marx predicted the boom and bust of business cycles that were associated with the growth of giant enterprises, the buying up of weaker competitors, and a shift to financially riskier investments. Each of these trends would foster greater instability on a national and international scale. “Concentration increases …,” Marx wrote. “The mass of small dispersed capitals is thereby driven along the adventurous road of speculation, credit frauds, stock swindles, and crises.” (Daniel Chirot, A Turning Point or Business as Usual )
In the wake of riots in Europe and too-big-to-fail scenarios that preceded the 2008 financial collapse, this may seem somewhat obvious, but in the late 19th century, when Marx wrote, small enterprises dominated. Phones, televisions, and airplanes had not been invented. For someone who complained about not even being able to keep up with current events in his own time because he couldn’t afford a newspaper, Marx’s premonitions were remarkable, if not miraculous. He foresaw the growth of mammoth organizations based on industrial production, swelled by purchases of smaller companies, driven forward by labor saving technology, and increasingly investing in financial instruments with greater and greater risk.
To put this in real-world perspective, General Electric, founded nearly a decade after he died, built itself up through the production of industrial machinery; became known for its technological innovation; went on a spree of buying smaller companies; and by 2008, just prior to the financial crisis, earned 62% of its total profit from its financial services division.
Next Week: The Dark Prophet: Part II
It is easy to dismiss Marx as a revolutionist or even as a theorist of socialism, but much harder to ignore his warnings about capitalism. He had discovered the Achilles’ heel of economic arrangements that celebrated their ability to create prosperity, generate innovation, and provide a bounty of goods and services as well as jobs. Capitalism proclaimed itself the final act in the history of economic evolution. Marx refuted the claim. His diatribes, as painful and polarizing as they were, force us to become conscious of capitalism’s other consequences.