I have been reading The Marx-Engels Reader and have just finished the first section which presents a number of Marx’s early writings. I am amazed at how relevant and important his work remains. Beyond the purely academic use of Marx in Academic circles– a use that is often filtered through Louis Althusser and other post-Marx “Marxists rather than the study of Marx’s actual writings and thought–Marx’s work remains incredibly important for understanding how economic forces operate. Obviously, we live in a world far different from the one that Marx lived in. Far different, indeed, than he could ever imagine. I will also grant that he is easy to dismiss in today’s postmodern, hyper-capitalist world and in light of the seeming triumph of capitalism over communism. This series will in no way be a full-fledged defense of Marxism, but I do feel it is important and–hopefully–interesting to point out some of his core concepts and relevant thoughts in hopes of sparking conversation.
The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion to the devaluation of the world of men. Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity . . . 1
Look at how Wal-mart treats its employees and you will see that Marx’s assessment of the worker as commodity is tragically correct. Here is a company that makes so much money (over 240 billion is sales per year and over 10 billion in profit) that is has no rival, indeed, there is no other company that is even in the same league, and yet the more powerful the company becomes, the more vast wealth it makes for a few at the top of its corporate ladder. Tula Connell, writing for the AFL-CIO states that:
Four members of the Waltons, the family behind Wal-Mart, last month were ranked by Forbes as among the nation’s 10 wealthiest people in the nation, with a combined net worth of more than $72 billion. Less than two weeks after the Walton Four saw their mugs highlighted on the Forbes website, reports emerged that Wal-Mart plans to cap wages, use more part-time workers and schedule more workers on nights and weekends‚ all to save money for a company with gross annual sales of more than $250 billion and an annual profit of more than $10 billion.2
I mean, come on, a company with an annual profit of over $10 billion dollars and they can’t afford decent health care for their employees? A company that paid out $172 million because they refused to allow workers legally mandated lunch breaks and yet Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott’s “2005 salary, bonuses and stock options totaled $27.2 million‚ 871 times the hourly earnings of a full-time US Wal-Mart employee and 50,000 times the wage of a Chinese worker for a Wal-Mart supplier.”3 The growing and seemingly inexorable gap between the rich and the poor is not mysterious. It is not something that “just happens.” It is not even just a matter of education, but rather a fundamental property of capitalism. When even Alan Greenspan recognizes that the growing gap between the rich and the poor is a problem, you know that we are in trouble.4 Greenspan suggests that the root cause of this growing disparity is education. Make kids smarter and they will get better jobs. Greenspan is ignoring, because it is necessary for people like Greenspan to ignore, the messy fact that capitalist economic structures depend upon inequities in the system. Capitalism simply doesn’t work if there aren’t workers to exploit and who are forced to sell their labor power to those who control the means of production. Sure, the more education a person has, the more he/she will be able to make. Individuals can certainly rise up from the status of wage laborer and claw their way up and into a different class. That doesn’t negate the fact that as a system, capitalism requires a working class–indeed, a working class with as few life options as possible in order to keep a large group of people (preferably non-unionized) at the disposal of the wealthy.
One of the things that Marx is good for, is the reminder that nothing social is natural or innocent. Disparity between the rich few and the poor many is not “just how it is” but a product of economic relationships. The failure of education is not something that has “just happened” but is, also, a product of economic relationships. Capitalism creates certain necessary and specific relationships between people, objects, commodities, and wealth. While you might disagree with Marx’s judgement that these relationships are inherently bad for people, his descriptions of these relationships still bear considerable intellectual and philosophical weight.
“Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” 71
Karl Marx Studies – a side dedicated to the work of Laurence Baronovitch, focusing on Marx’s early works.