The bourgeoisie… has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”.
— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
On October 27, 2017, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon became the richest person in the world. On the same day, The Washington Post, owned by Bezos, had on its front page a story on Communism in Kerala titled, “A Communist Success.”
If there was evidence needed of the remarkable prescience of Karl Marx’s work about the revolutionary nature of capital, it is this: a newspaper located in the heart of the leading capitalist power and owned by the richest person applauds a Communist success story in the global periphery. Some of the words that Marx uses when describing capital comes to mind when looking at this irony: “transcendent,” “metaphysical,” “mysterious,” “fantastic,” “magic,” and “necromancy”.
Capitalism thus, as Marx recognised, created productive forces “more than all preceding generations together,” made the whole world its playground, and “has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedral.”
As we mark the 200th year of Karl Marx’s work, what we see around is the fulfilment of some of the fundamental prognosis that emerges from the oeuvre of Marx’s work despite his failure (at least until now) in predicting some things like the immiserisation of the working class, the hardening of class conflict, and the inevitable collapse of capitalism (its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable). For a thinker’s work to have such emphatic relevancy after a century and half and despite the tectonic changes in the economy, and in technology recently shows its enduring cadence.
Take for instance, one of the crucial concepts of Marx in Capital: commodity fetishism which elucidates how products of human labour become commodities with a life of their own masking the labour that created them in the first place. Moreover, the relationship between human beings becomes reduced to a relationship between commodities: “There is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”
What could illustrate our current predicament of living in a “throwaway” and “disposable” society reeling under the pernicious effects of overconsumption and overproduction, and the breakdown of social bonds than commodity fetishism? The critical aspect of Marx’s understanding of commodity fetishism is that he does not reduce it to a economic concept but locates it also in what he calls the “mist-enveloped regions” of the religious experience. At present, interestingly, research from across the world shows that rather than consumerism being pitted against religion, religion itself has become commodified.
Or, take another of Marx’s fundamental concepts, “primitive accumulation.” While capitalists are eulogized and capitalist success stories celebrated in society, the fact of how capital is initially accumulated is glossed over. As Marx put it: “In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force play the great part.” In the present, this becomes even more opaque as capitalism appears “natural” to most of the world. Modern colonialism of the Americas, Africa and Asia with its devastating consequences are the biggest examples of the primitive accumulation of capital.
But primitive accumulation is hardly history. It is a daily terrifying reality for the most marginalised populations of the world. The plundering of the most valuable natural resources by MNCs and in the process the destroying of the economic and cultural habitats of the Adivasis is one example in India. The phenomenon of land grabbing from the time of the 2007-8 food price crisis through large-scale acquisitions of land in developing countries by agricultural investors and speculators is another global example.
As much as 70 percent of the land grabs occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. The only difference between the past and present types of accumulation is that the latter happen under the cloak of free trade and democracy. Even 150 years ago, Marx had termed free trade as nothing but “exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”
Marx criticised classical economists like David Ricardo and Adam Smith for misunderstanding categories of capitalist production like money, credit, division of labour as some “fixed immutable, eternal categories”. Adam Smith famously argued that the “propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another… is common to all men.”
Marx’s fundamental contribution is to show that the propensity to produce and sell goods for profit is not the natural self-interested and greedy condition of human beings, but a result of historical transformation which produces a social structure conducive to capitalism.
The most important element of this new social structure is the emergence of labour from the clutches of personal dependences and unfreedoms that characterise feudalism to become free wage labour. The central feature of capitalism is that the capitalist owns the means/instruments of production and labour owns nothing except their labour. Thus, for the first time in human history, labour itself becomes a commodity, to be bought and sold in the market.
While Marx’s brilliance is acknowledged to be in the analysis of capitalist production, he is equally skilled at understanding the two-faced nature of the transitioning society around him, of the combination of feudalism and capitalism and the sufferings it imposes: “Alongside of modern evils, a survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead.”
This striking passage from Capital has resonance in the India of the present, when caste and its accumulated privileges of centuries and personal dependences and servitudes of various kinds bedevil our democracy.
The religious and the magical nature of capitalism has reached its apogee under our present conditions. An unregulated global financial capitalism rules the roost. The speculative tendencies visible from the 1920s exploded in the recent decades. As early as 1986, the economist Susan Strange warned us: “The Western financial system is rapidly coming to resemble nothing as much as a vast casino.” The mysterious and irrational quality of casino capitalism finally culminated in the world economic devastation of the 2008 financial crisis originating in the American property bubble.
Ultimately, Marx’s would not want us to read his work without acting upon it. What marks out him from other philosophers is his call to translate theory into practice. As he famously put it: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” But if Marx’s vision of a Communist society founded on the idea of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” has to be realized, Communist politics will have to include a remorseful accounting of the practice which produced many monstrosities including Stalin’s Gulag and Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution.’
The recognition that capitalism occupies a small part of the entire history of human existence is a critical insight that emerges from Marx and is necessary for alternative conceptions of organising human economic relations. And despite the mechanistic imputations in Marx of the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism, changes are only possible through class struggle and the recognition by workers that, as Marx puts it, “the products of labour… are but material expressions of the human labour spent in their production.”
So, politics is vital here and it is the terrain through which social transformation, democratic to the core, can be heralded. That is the implication of reading Karl Marx in the 200th year of his birth.