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 II: Capitalism's Shadow
Time Range: 1867-1883, 2012
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.
We are confronted with capitalism’s shadow, the dependence on jobs defined solely by the marketplace, the depletion of natural resources, and the addiction to material gratification and personal glory out of sync with spiritual, community, and personal growth.
Yet, for all these dark prophecies, they are still within the imagination to address. There is ample evidence of the power of human collaboration combined with science and social purpose to tackle even the most difficult social issues. The darkest prophecy that Marx left us was not about economic concentration, ecological destruction, or the effects of inequality. It was about ourselves. It was about human polarization, the nature of privilege, and feelings of revenge – things Marx understood deeply in his bones.
His prophecy of successive business crises, continual warfare between nations, depletion of the earth’s resources, and mounting cynicism among the middle and lower classes was all predicated on the belief that government would do nothing about it. He believed that government would be a protector of the dominant classes — even as the dominant classes battled each other — or at best impotent, paralyzed to do anything significant about the crises that would unfold in waves.
Government officials railed Marx, in tones similar to a tormented Dr. Seuss, could not, would not stand up to the monied interests that supported their rise to political power and punished these same politicians if they deviated too sharply from the social narrative of economic growth. And that narrative was synonymous, questionable as it was, with progress, social good, and most critically the belief that money should never lie fallow but grow through investment, resulting in individual wealth accumulation. The hero's journey, in capitalist mythology, overcame hardship in order to gain material wealth. And in gaining wealth gained wisdom and character. If only it was true.
Marx, often unkind, jealous, suspicious, even wrathful, staked his entire claim on the inability of individuals and social groups to see the predicament they were in. There could be no genuine conversation about altering the rules of capitalism in any significant way. Was he correct?
There is a final irony in all this. Capitalists and workers alike would follow the psychological script Marx laid out while believing they opposed his ideas. As groups on the right and left organized to battle the perceived dangerous actions of the other, they were fulfilling Marx’s prophecy. As unions became more organized, aggressive, and even violent in the early 20th century, they were following exactly Marx’s claim that capitalism would spawn its own detractors as workers learned to leverage their power. As certain capitalists fought against living wages for workers, initiated offshore production to increase their surplus value, and battled regulations for protecting the safety of workers as well as the environment, they were fulfilling Marx’s interpretation of how a ruling class would operate. As governments swung from welfare programs to austerity policies, their basic incompetence or incapacity to act was revealed.
Marx’s assumption was that individuals were not free to think beyond the shackles of their immediate self-interest. Given the structure of profit making, Marx asserted that individuals would choose to maximize their gain at the expense of others, regardless of the consequences. This makes nearly everyone operating within the capitalist system Marxist — at least in behavior. If there was an exception to his declaration about the lack of human agency, it was himself. Confounding his followers, he declared a few years before his death, “I am not a Marxist.”