Marx: The Economic Basis of Society
(This is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Thirteen Theories of Human Nature, Oxford Univ. Press.)
We are interested in Marxist theory, not in the various ways it may have been implemented. [Think of the parallel with Christianity. If you are a Christian and someone says “Christians conducted the Crusades and Inquisition, they may have collaborated with the Nazis and protected pedophile priests,” you answer that none of that is Christian behavior. A Marxist can say the same about Stalin or Mao or North Korea.] Who was Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)? “Marx was the greatest critical theorist of the Industrial Revolution and nineteenth-century capitalism … Although hostile to religion, Marx inherited an ideal of human equality and freedom from Christianity, and he shared the Enlightenment hope that scientific method could diagnose and resolve the problems of human society … Behind his … theorizing was a prophetic, quasi-religious zeal to show the way toward a secular form of salvation.”
Marx studied at the University of Berlin in the mid-nineteenth-century at a time and place when G.W.F. Hegel’s thought was dominant. Hegel believed in a progressive human history where Geist—mind, spirit or god—develops throughout history. All human history is “the progressive self-realization of Geist.” In other words, human social life evolves in a progressive direction as more adequate ideas of reality slowly emerging leading to greater consciousness, self-awareness, and freedom. [Hegel’s philosophy is notoriously complex and abstruse. But the process in large part takes place as a dialectic between ideas. A thesis is offered, its antithesis advanced, and a synthesis emerges.] Hegel believed that mental and cultural development eventually reaches a state of absolute knowledge. Right Hegelians believed that the 19th Prussian state had reached a near perfect state of development; left Hegelians believed it had not, that the society was far from ideal and it was up to people to make it better.
[Consider the parallels with politics in the USA today. From the conservative right we hear that “the USA is the greatest nation ever,” “American love it or leave it,” “God loves America most,” “We are an exceptional nation,” etc. Thus change is unnecessary. From the progressive left comes the idea that there is much-unfilled promise in our era, thus the need to change things for the better by advancing a progressive political agenda. Conservatives want to conserve—traditional marriage, white supremacy, current economic system—or go backward—get rid of social security, women in the labor force, minimum wage, contraception, labor unions, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. Liberals want to liberate and free people from undue burdens like lack of health care and affordable education, minimum wage jobs, unwanted pregnancies, racial prejudice, etc. Obviously, this is all more complicated than this but that’s the general idea.]
The other main influence on Marx was Ludwig Feuerbach. Rather than agreeing with Hegel that geist or god realizes itself (himself) throughout history, humans create religion as an idealized version of life in this world. [This world is so bad that people imagine a perfect world.] Here Feuerbach uses another idea of Hegel’s—the idea of alienation in which subjects confront objects unknown and alien from themselves. Feuerbach argued that people become alienated when “they project their own human potential into theological fantasies and undervalue their actual lives.” Feuerbach argued that metaphysics and theology are expressions of our emotions disguised as claims about reality. “So he saw religion as a symptom of human alienation, from which we must free ourselves by realizing our destiny in this world.”
All this led Marx to conclude that Hegel was right to be concerned about truth and progress in history, but wrong to think the natural, historical world was a manifestation of the development of spirit or mind. Instead, Marx argued that thought and mind are manifestations of the natural world, of material conditions. (Hence the idea that Marx turned Hegel upside down.) The driving force of social change are not ideas about gods or cosmic spirits, but economic conditions. And alienation is not primarily religious but social and economic. In a capitalist system, we are alienated from our labor because we don’t work for ourselves, but for others who own the means of production and the products of our labor. Capitalists try to maximize profit, exploiting their workers by paying them the minimum needed for their survival.
The Materialist Theory of History – Marx was an atheist and a materialist. He thought of himself as a social scientist that had discovered a scientific way to study “economic history of human society.” He was looking for general socio-economic laws that applied to human history both synchronically and diachronically. Here is what he argued.
At any given time, synchronically, economics determines ideology. The rich and powerful defend capitalism because it serves their interests. Their rhetoric regarding freedom of enterprise, trade, and markets expresses the self-interest of those who possess land and money. The rest are left “free to starve,” if the labor markets won’t give them jobs. [Or they can be incarcerated or killed in foreign wars that serve their capitalistic interests.] Marx claims that social, legal, and political power was in the hands of capitalists, especially the very wealthy, although government has tried to regulate the excesses of capitalism by banning child labor, minimum wage laws, health and safety laws, environmental protection, some health care and retirement benefits, etc. [Marx would not be surprised to find that in a rich country like America today, the capitalists and financiers try to influence, if not control, any government attempts to reign in their excess profits or contributions to climate and other environmental degradation. The government becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of business.]
Looking across time, diachronically, Marx recognized that economic and technological development will result in social, political and ideological change. Consider how agriculture, slavery, feudalism, or the industrial revolution transformed social and political life. Marx’s salient insight is that a materialist, economic theory of history explains these transformations. A brief summary of this insight can be seen in this passage:
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness …
The economic base of a society provides the foundation of one’s social life, and it conditions that social life to a great extent. To understand this would be to pay attention to the distinctions Marx draws between:
a) Material powers of production: natural resources including land, climate, plants, animals, minerals; technology such as tools, machinery, communication systems; and human resources like labor power and skills.
b) Economic Structure: the organizational structure of work, division of labor, authority in the workplace, legal power of ownership, systems of rewards and payments, legal concepts of property, economic concepts like money, capital, and wages.
c) Ideological Superstructure: social beliefs, morality, laws, politics, religion, and philosophy.
It is not exactly clear what Marx meant by economics being the basis or foundation of social life. Is that foundation a, or a and b? Does a determine b and therefore c? Or does b determine c alone? Or do a and b determine c? [I think the argument as a whole works even if some of the details aren’t entirely clear.] The key question is how much conditioning or influencing or determining did Marx believe that economics had on ideology. Surely we have to eat before we can act or think but it doesn’t seem to follow that this determines everything we do or think. Still, the economic structure of a society sets limits on and influences how people think.
[For example, the economic structure determines how you can earn your bread in a society, and thus the way most people act a large part of the time. But consider how earning your money selling cigarettes, crude oil, real estate, alcohol, or assault weapons significantly influences how you think about those things. Or consider how growing up in a sub-culture with few economic opportunities strongly influences how you think about occupations like small-time drug dealer, prostitute, professional boxing, as well as about law enforcement, courts, laws, foreign wars, etc. Consider the vastly different political views of those in different socio-economic classes. You can probably think of all sorts of other examples of this connection between economics and ideology.]
While none of this implies hard determinism, Marx thought that capitalism would become gradually more unstable, class struggle would increase, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
[These themes were in large part the subject of the economist Thomas Piketty’s recent worldwide best-seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty is arguably the world’s foremost expert on income and wealth inequality. His “central thesis is that when the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of economic growth (g) over the long-term, the result is a concentration of wealth, and this unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability. Piketty proposes a global system of progressive wealth taxes to help reduce inequality and avoid the vast majority of wealth coming under the control of a tiny minority.”1 Consider how your own reaction to such claims is largely determined by your own socio-economic background. I have written about these issues here, here, here and here.]
The extent to which Marx’s predictions have come true is open to debate. On the one hand, capitalism more or less reins in first world countries, although technically we have mixed economies, on the other hand, the strengthening of the social safety net in first world countries may have prevented the kind of upheaval that Marx envisioned. Moreover, 3rd world countries may be the proletariat for 1st world countries today.
Theory of Human Nature: Economics, Society, and Consciousness – Marx is most interested in the social nature of humans rather than their biological nature. “Almost everything a person does presupposes the existence of other people … what kinds of things one does are affected by one’s interactions in the society one lives in. What seems ‘instinctive’ in one society or epoch—for example, a certain role for women—may be very different in another.” In other words, sociology is not reducible to biology or psychology. Some things about humans cannot be explained by facts about individuals but must be explained by society. Marx is one of the founding fathers of sociology. Marx does argue that human beings are active, productive beings. Unlike non-human animals, we make conscious decisions about how we want to work for a living, and good lives entail appropriate, purposive work.
Diagnosis: Alienation and Exploitation Under Capitalism – Alienation or estrangement in Marx refer to our alienation from other people, as well as from the products and process of their labor. Without capital, one must sell one’s labor to capitalists who dictate the nature of work. Thus we do not generally get to express or elaborate our being through our work but must work in order to satisfy our basic needs. At work, we don’t “belong to ourselves,” rather we are under the control of others. Moreover “the competitiveness of life under capitalism conflicts with the ideal of solidarity with other human beings.” Alienation thus implies a lack of community where individuals can’t see their work as contributing to the larger society. In short, Marx sees the economic structure of capitalism as unjust. [What would he think of this?]
Surprisingly many of Marx insights coincide with those of Adam Smith, who is usually hailed as the father of capitalism and its most ardent defendant. Smith too was alarmed by the injustice of capitalism: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable.” Both echo Kant’s a formulation of the categorical imperative—never treat people as a means to an end, for they are ends in themselves. In Marx’s time, people were clearly used for the capitalists’ ends, including children and adults who worked long hours in unsafe conditions. [Thee conditions were not ameliorated by capitalists, but by responsive governments.] Even today exploitation of workers in the most advanced countries still takes place. [The countries that do this least, who treat their workers best, are the social democracies of Scandinavia and western Europe.] And this is not only factory workers or minimum wage workers but the vast majority of people who can’t fulfill their human potential, those who cannot elaborate themselves through their labor. Human beings shouldn’t exist as cogs in a productive machine; they produce in order to express themselves.
Prescription: Revolution and Utopia – “If alienation and exploitation are social problems caused by the nature of the capitalist system, then the solution is to abolish that system and replace it with a better one.” [A more modest proposal would be to tinker with it, preserving what might be good about it but improving its obvious flaws—encouraging mindless consumption, exploitation of individuals, destruction of the environment, etc.] Marx thought that the movement of history would eventually undermine capitalism. [In fact, pure laissez-faire capitalism exists nowhere on the planet.] However he still believed that we should act to bring about the transition from capitalism to communism (a classless society in which all wealth and property is jointly owned). Marx held that a complete revolution was necessary to undermine capitalism and create a more just and equitable society. [Some historians argue that US President FDR actually saved capitalism from the ferment developing in the depression of the 1930s.) In fact, many of the proposals of the Communist Manifesto have been adopted by capitalist countries.
“Marx envisaged a total regeneration of humanity …” If human consciousness could be altered, then freedom could become real, with individuals free to actualize their potentials. The guiding principle of this world is “from each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] needs.” [If this sounds idealistic, think of the voluntary labor that produced Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, etc.] Marx advocated using science and technology to improve life, shortening work, universal education, society in balance with nature, and more. “Marxism has offered this kind of hopeful vision of a human future … [it] has been a secular faith, a prophetic vision of social salvation.”
Still, we might object that economic factors are “only one of many obstacles in the way of human fulfillment.” Existential angst, immorality, pain, aggression, death and much more also stand in its way. Nonetheless, Marx highlighted, perhaps better than anyone else has done, the horrors of capitalism.