The Frightening Increasing Pertinence of Marx’s Social Theory

My intention is not to bore you with the complexities of Marx’s writing, nor is it to provide a comprehensive explication of his often convoluted teachings—which would require innumerable hours of work on both our parts. Rather, I hope to take a core principle of Marx’s critique of political economy and present a snapshot of its relevancy to the world we find ourselves living in today, and that of the near future. I will be dealing mainly with Marx’s concepts of commodity fetishism and alienation, his early humanist work.

Portrait of Karl Marx, 1875. By John Jabez Edwin Mayall
Portrait of Karl Marx, 1875.

Today, capitalism is defended for its democratizing abilities. Capitalism is honoured for providing vast economic growth to the world, most notably gaining notoriety in the United States (and around the world) following World War II. In the eyes of capital, everyone of every ethnicity, creed, sex, and colour is qualitatively the same; assuming they can perform the function of labour and provide surplus value to their employers, there is no distinguishing in a large firm one worker from another. They become numbers on a page, a market value on a payroll. Those at the top of the chain, the wealthiest of the wealthy are exemplified as the epitome of success—vast, ever-accumulating wealth. We see them on Forbes list of the wealthiest individuals in the world, and what do they do with all their money? This is of less import than their rate of accumulating capital and their absolute worth: we qualitatively compare human beings based on their price tags. If you’ve been confounded by the vast reach of materialism that seems to have swallowed industrialized society whole, taking a look at Marx’s work might provide us with some insight.

To begin with, capitalist society is distinguished from pre-capitalist society based on two characteristics: formal freedom and equality, and accumulation of capital. Compared to feudalism, “wage labourers are formally free (there is no external force that compels them to sign a contract, and contracts, once signed, can be annulled later) and are formally equal to capitalists (there are actual advantages to the ownership of a large estate, but there are no “inherited” legal privileges such as exist in a society characterized by the existence of a nobility).”1 In pre-capitalist society, production served the fulfillments of wants, while “the gains of a capitalist enterprise do not serve in the first instance to make a comfortable life for the capitalist possible, but are rather invested anew, in order to generate more gains in the future. Not the satisfaction of wants, but the valorization of capital is the immediate goal of production; the fulfillment of wants and therefore a comfortable life for the capitalist is merely a by-product of this process, not its goal. If the gains are large enough, then a small portion is sufficient to finance the luxurious existence of the capitalist, and the greater portion can be used for the accumulation (enlargement) of capital.”2 To see this in practice one must simply list a few examples: Jordon Belfort, the Koch brothers, Robert Mugabe, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, Pablo Escobar. Why didn’t these unthinkably rich individuals stop their ‘machines’ when their needs were easily satisfied by their vast wealth? Because satisfaction of wants was never the goal in the first place—rather the accumulation of capital is presented as the final goal of capitalism (a goal that itself perpetuates and instills the system within us).

Of utmost importance to Marx’s critique of political economy are the “fetishism” of commodities and the reversal of roles in subject and object. In pre-capitalist society, the human being was the subject making the object through concrete labour, for use-value. In the capitalist society, “social relationships such as exchange and commodity production are ‘naturalized’ and ‘reified,’ that is, social relationships are conceived of as quasi-natural conditions, as the essential characteristics of things (according to this conception, things do not first obtain an exchange value on the basis of a particular societal structure, but rather in and of themselves). Through such a naturalization of social relationships, it appears as if things have the properties and autonomy of subjects […] Marx’s intent was to point out the human and social costs connected with capitalist development. He attempts to prove that ‘within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker; that all means for the development of production undergo an inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers’ […] ‘Capitalist production, therefore, only develops techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.’”3 In the feudal era, production occurred on a small scale, and social relations still existed as such between serfs and their nobles. While serfs were not free and had limited rights, their safety was guaranteed by nobles, who had small armies to defend their land. In today’s epoch almost all social relationships are manifested through the exchange of commodities, from buying food and clothing, finding cheaper textbooks through online markets, getting a ride through uber, to buying an iPhone that’s parts were made through sweatshop and child labour. When one compares clothing to buy at a store, often the first thing one checks is the price tag – the monetary value delineates the worth of the object. One can see the fashion industry and brand loyalty as an extreme; the use-value (protection of one’s body from weather and prying eyes) is subordinated to the exchange value (the equivalent worth compared to other objects on the market).

The capitalist system didn’t come to dominate Man overnight, but developed through rationalization and specialization of the production process—through industrialization. The rationalization of the mode of production and the specialization of occupancies causes a break in the “organic, irrational, and the qualitatively determined unity of the product […] the finished article ceases to be the object of the work-process. The latter turns into the objective synthesis of rationalized special systems whose unity is determined by pure calculations and which must seem to be arbitrarily connected with each other. This destroys the organic necessity with which inter-related special operations are unified in the end product […] In the second place, this fragmentation of the object of production necessarily entails the fragmentation of its subject […] a perfectly closed system, must likewise transform the basic categories of man’s immediate attitude to the world: it reduces time and space to a common denominator and degrades time to the dimension of space.”4 Indeed the modern concept of time has long been studied as a development alongside capitalism. To what extent do people enjoy the work they are doing? How often are people conscious of the time they have remaining in the workday, relieved when they ‘clock out,’ and head home for the evening? Marx summarizes: “‘through the subordination of man to the machine the situation arises in which men are effaced by their labour; in which the pendulum of the clock has become as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed of two locomotives. Therefore, we should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most the incarnation of time. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything’ […] Thus time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into the exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable ‘things’ (the reified, mechanically objectified performance of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality): in short, it becomes space.”5

Sweatshop labourers.

In the industrialized world, “the fate of the worker becomes the fate of society as a whole; indeed, this fate must become universal as otherwise industrialization could not develop in this direction. For it depends on the emergence of the ‘free’ worker who is freely able to take his labour-power to market and offer it for sale as a commodity ‘belonging’ to him, a thing that he ‘possesses’ […] only when the whole life of society is thus fragmented into isolated acts of commodity exchange can the ‘free’ worker come into being; at the same time his fate becomes the typical fate of the whole society […] However, if this atomization is only an illusion it is a necessary one. That is to say, the immediate, practical as well as intellectual confrontation of the individual with society, the immediate production and reproduction of life – in which for the individual the commodity structure of all ‘things’ and their obedience to ‘natural laws’ is found to exist already in a finished form, as something immutably given – could only take place in the form of rational and isolated acts of exchange between isolated commodity owners. As emphasized above, the worker, too, must present himself as the ‘owner’ of his labour-power, as if it were a commodity. His specific situation is defined by the fact that his labour-power is his only possession. His fate is typical of society as a whole in that this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanized and dehumanizing function of the commodity relation.”6

In short, an illusion of relationships between people is sustained while in reality commodities are subjects that shuffle people around as objects. Consider when better job opportunities exist in one area relative to another: vast immigration will take place, not because people are ‘free’ subjects that choose to dislodge themselves from their former lives, but because wage-labour subordinates human beings to the position of transferable objects, and because to subsist many workers are in principle forced to immigrate. Marx acutely presented the takeover of social relationships, the organization of society, and the psychological effects, that the capitalist system inherently necessitates.

The nature of Marx’s claims seem, at first sight, to be on the verge of conspiracy theories. A capitalist system, under the control of no one; an invisible hand which veils the eyes of both proletariat and bourgeois. Capitalism is an all-encompassing system, such that no one can any longer think or ‘be’ outside of it: “This rational objectification conceals above all the immediate – qualitative and material – character of things as things. When use-values appear universally as commodities they acquire a new objectivity, a new substantiality which they did not possess in an age of episodic exchange and which destroys their original and authentic substantiality. As Marx observes: ‘Private property alienates not only the individuality of men, but also of things. The ground and the earth have nothing to do with ground-rent, machines have nothing to do with profit. For the landowner ground and earth mean nothing but ground-rent; he lets his land to tenants and receives the rent – a quality which the ground can lose without losing any of its inherent qualities such as its fertility; it is a quality whose magnitude and indeed existence depends on social relations that are created and abolished without any intervention by the landowner. Likewise with the machine.’”7 Today we find the extractive sector disregarding communities living on land that happens to contain vital minerals or oil. Mining companies do not see Latin American indigenous communities’ cultural and structural relationship to their land, often their most valued relationships. Canadian companies like Gold Corp simply apply highly technical surveillance of land to calculate the value of the buried minerals and compute a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether or not a mine is worth opening. The land’s natural value, its inherent qualities, are worthless relative to the value in terms of commodity exchange to such companies. Likewise, members of the public who own stocks—small ownership of the company itself, its machines and products, its violation of human and indigenous rights—do not see the social organization and relationships that pervade capital in the money (or stock price) they end up receiving.

“Thus even the individual object which man confronts directly, either as producer or consumer, is distorted in its objectivity by its commodity character […] These forms of capital are objectively subordinated, it is true, to the real life-process of capitalism, the extraction of surplus value in the course of production. They are, therefore, only to be explained in terms of the nature of industrial capitalism itself. But in the minds of people in bourgeois society they constitute the pure, authentic, unadulterated forms of capital. In them the relations between men that lie hidden in the immediate commodity relation, as well as the relations between men and the objects that should really gratify their needs, have faded to the point where they can be neither recognized nor even perceived.”8

As the world becomes ever more interconnected through the rise of technological advancements, international relations and global ethics pervades decision making more than ever before in history. One might consider the Atlantic slave trade—the exchange of over 20 million human lives as commodities—as the pinnacle of ethical effacement. However, all one has to look at to provide a counter argument is the advancements of science and the drive for the use of new technologies.

Advanced drone technology is being used to illegally monitor millions of people around the world; the United States uses unmanned armed drones to conduct targeted killings around the world – precisely because it is a cheap and effective way to produce results. Governments fund wars without themselves getting involved in the fighting—the international sale of weaponry has been rising for decades. The threat of nuclear war and weapons of mass destruction is now in the hands of relatively small organizations, not just governments of powerful nations—owners of capital will sell their commodities to the highest bidder without concern for how they will be used. As military technology advances, there are ever-growing threats to international relations and stability, as social relationships between human beings become blinded by relationships between objects (capital and commodities), agreement on ethics becomes harder and further removed. Pharmaceutical companies in the United States have been spending large portions of their budgets on advertisement rather than research and development for  life-saving medicines. Companies like Pfizer and Turing have marked-up their prices, seeing an opportunity for profit through ‘smart business tactics’ in commodity exchange rather than considering the welfare of human beings and human suffering.

As technologies advance and we continue to be mystified by commodity exchange, the stakes only get higher for achieving stability in international relations and agreeing to a standard global ethics. As the perceivable distance between human beings broadens due to unnatural rationalization and mechanization of human relationships, the international community faces a harder challenge to see the moving components of society for what they are (in the first degree human, not commodity), and work towards common goals.

1 Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012), 14-15.

2 Ibid., 15-16.

3 Ibid., 34-35.

4 George Lukacs, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Great Britain: The Merlin Press, 1971), 88-89.

5 Ibid., 89-90.

6 Ibid., 91-92.

7 Ibid., 92.

8 Ibid., 93.