What's Marx About?

A three page indication.

(For more detail see Marxist theory;
A brief introduction
. 16 pages.  http://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/Marx.html)

Marx gave us an analysis of capitalism which is of great importance for anyone who wants to understand our society, its problems and where it is going.  The following notes pick out some of the main themes Marxists focus on.

In a capitalist economy a few own most of the capital and are free to invest it in what ever will make most profit by competing in the market place.  Capital is not "collectively" owned and invested in what the society decides. 

Most people have little or no capital to invest and must sell their labour to employers.

What is produced is what will make most money for the owners of capital, not what is most needed.  This is probably the biggest fault in a capitalist system.  Many huge problems go unmet, simply because it does not suit those who own capital to meet them.  For example, only big and expensive houses are produced and it is not possible to buy a small, cheap sufficient house.  Thus large numbers of people go without housing.  Similarly much Third World land goes into producing luxury crops for export when a billion people are hungry.  Most of the world's problems can be attributed to the fact that in a capitalist system no attention is given to the needs of people, society, the environment, or to human rights or justice...the only thing allowed to determine production and distribution is what will maximise the profits of capitalists.

The factor that motivates the system, and is the most important determinant of what happens in society, is the drive to make as much money as possible, in order to be able to invest more, in order to make even more...in an endless spiral.  In other words the most important determinant is the drive to accumulate capital.  This is the main factor that has built the world as it is, and brings about the changes we see, and generates the problems we face.

Thus economic growth is tightly connected to capitalism.  The owners of capital want ever-increasing amount of producing and consuming to be going on, because this means more and more opportunities to do good business.  Thus capitalism is ecologically unsustainable; it is not possible for the amount of producing, consuming, resource use etc. to go on increasing all the time.  A sustainable world would have far less producing and consuming going on than there is now, and an amount that does not increase over time, but capitalism cannot move in that direction.

Marxists analyse society in terms of the classes that exist.  A small class owns most of the capital and therefore has most of the power.  They own the factories and media, so they can decide what to produce, where to invest, whether people have jobs.  The middle classes are made up of professionals, administrators, small business owners etc. At the bottom is the "lumpenproletariat" made up of people dumped into unemployment, homelessness, poverty, "exclusion" etc.

Society and history have to be understood in terms of struggle between classes.  These have conflicting interests.  In feudal times the lords were on top, dominating serfs.  Now the capitalist class dominates, gets most of the wealth and has most of the power to run things, including power to influence, bully and even "buy" governments e.g., by giving money to political parties. 

In a capitalist society the labour of workers are treated as a commodity for sale.  This should not be done; workers are people and while it is alright to leave a bag of wheat idle it is not right to leave people idle and without an income.  In capitalist society it is alright to let people suffer unemployment until someone with capital thinks he can make a profit employing them.  It would be easy to organise the economy so no one was unemployed; there is plenty of work that needs doing and society should organise and pay for this.

Capitalists get unearned income while everyone else has to work for their incomes.  They get money just because they have money.  For instance if someone sets up a factory and gets a manager and workers to produce goods, he gets an income without having to do any of the work...while many have to work to produce the goods he consumes.  Marxists insist that money should not be able to earn money.  The conventional view is that producing requires capital to be invested as well as labour to be invested, and profit is the reward to the capitalist for taking the risk.  This is the way things are organised in capitalist society but the point is that there are other ways we could organise an economy so that no one gets an income without working for it and investment risks is shared by all.

Capitalism generates savage inequality.  Those few who are rich have great power to get richer and take more of the available business, markets and resources, and thus to constantly get richer.  About 1% of the world's people now have about 40% of all the wealth.  Several billion people are extremely poor, and one billion are hungry all the time.  This is mainly because the global economy is a capitalist economy. (That does not mean that just getting rid of capitalism would fix the problems.)

Capitalism has created and perpetuates the Third World problem.  In a capitalist system Third World "development" can only take the form that maximises the profits of investing corporations.  The rich countries force poor countries to follow free market policies that benefit themselves and their corporations.   People are not able to put their abundant land, labour and other resources into producing to meet their own basic needs.  That would be "socialism" and it is unthinkable.

Capitalism is full of contradictions.  The interests of capitalists contradict those of workers.  The more wages are driven down the less workers can consume, meaning the system runs towards depression.  Similarly the more the capitalist automates his factories the less workers are needed, the less wages are earned and people have less capacity to buy his products.  Unless people consume more and more the jobs available for them decrease. As the economy grows it undermines and destroys the ecosystems on which it depends. Marx thought that in time the system's contradictions would destroy it.  It is not difficult to explain the increasing problems evident today at the global level in terms of the nature and dynamic of the capitalist system.  The quest for ever-increasing profitable investment has led to neoliberal globalisation, to the grotesque inequality, the deprivation of the Third World, the resource depletion, and to the environmental destruction. The system also flips between boom and bust as capitalists race after opportunities or withdraw capital when it suits them, causing huge damage to societies.

Capitalism also generates serious and increasingly destructive social problems.  Its competitive individualism and greed undermine social cohesion; for instance we must all struggle as individuals in competition for jobs, we are constantly goaded to consume more and more, what's profitable is done and what's good for society or the environment is not.  The emphasis is not on cooperation, the public good, helping, giving, generosity...or any desirable human value.

Marxists say that in any era there is a dominant ideology.  The ideas that most people take for granted are, surprise surprise, those that it suits the ruling class to have people believe.  For instance today most people believe in growth, market forces, affluence, competition and individualism.

Marxists emphasise that capitalism cannot be reformed, or fixed.  It must be scrapped. The problems it causes cannot be solved while some form of it, or any of its core characteristics, is retained.

Marx thought the system would eventually self-destruct, as the contradictions worsen and the conditions of the dominated class deteriorated to the point where it eventually rebels.

He didn't say much about the form that he thought the post-capitalist society would take.  Marxists generally think that in the short run the leaders of the working class would take over the state and run things from the centre, via a "dictatorship of the proletariat" (workers). They think this will inevitably involve violence because the ruling class never gives up its privileges voluntarily.  For some time the revolutionary leaders will probably have to rule with force.  However, eventually "communism" would become possible, a situation in which no class dominated others, there are no bosses or wages, productive property is owned collectively, i.e., by society as a whole, and collective decisions are made about investment and production.  The idea that sums up Marx's view of communism is one we would all probably agree with; i.e., that we would all work and contribute according to our ability to do that, and we would all be able to take and use goods according to our need for them. 

Among the important criticisms of Marx's ideas are that he couldn't have seen that resource and environmental problems now rule out the goal of an industrialised and affluent society, he didn't see the great danger in one party taking absolute power and remaining dictatorial, he thought taking state power was the crucial early step and that changes in ideas at the mass level could come laterÉbut Anarchists think this order of events has to be reversed. (Marxists and Anarchists strongly disagree on transition strategy although Anarchists generally accept Marx's analysis of capitalism.)

These are important ideas about the nature of capitalism, the changes occurring and what has caused our big problems. Whether one agrees with the explanations Marx put forward, he was very important in drawing attention to these issues and setting up discussion in these terms.