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Commentary :: Labor
The Relevance of Marxism
28 Jan 2004
Some of the predictions made by Karl Marx during his analysis of capitalism that have proved to be accurate and one that has yet to come to pass.
When I bought a condensed version of Das Kapital by Karl Marx over the Internet, I fully expected the introduction to denigrate Marx's work and label it outdated and irrelevant. My anticipations were fully justified, as it did just that. However, if one actually reads Das Kapital, one can readily understand what a brilliant and logical critique Marx makes of capitalism and how very relevant it still is to today's world. The true test of a good scientific theory is if future results predicted by that theory actually come to fruition in reality. I can cite several of Marx's predictions that are accurate and validate his theory.

Marx predicted that economic depressions would continue to appear periodically in capitalist societies because workers were not paid enough to buy back all the goods and services they produce and overproduction results, precipitating layoffs of workers. This further depresses purchasing power, creating a downward spiral. The value of a product is determined by the amount of human labor necessary to create the product. Since the capitalist takes a considerable amount of that value as profit, the workers do not have the purchasing power to consume all they create.

Marx thought that mergers between large capitalist enterprises would become more frequent. He called the process centralization. Mergers lessen competition, enlarge market share, create greater efficiency and reduce labor costs. Anyone who lived in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s is cognizant of the merger mania that occurred and the large number of people who were laid off as a result. Marx is proved right once again.

During a lecture by political analyst Michael Parenti, I remember that he made the statement that Marx had noted that the one part of the national wealth of a country which would always belong to the working class was the national debt. It is true. The rich create a large portion of the national debt with their wars and government subsidies, and then, the poor through regressive taxation pay interest to the rich bondholders of that national debt. The rich make money both ways-in the creation of the debt and the interest paid on it.

Before the capitalist system came into existence, producers and consumers of products came into direct contact with one another and an exchange of more or less equal value occurred. With the arrival of capitalism and the accompanying division of labor and mass production machinery, an intermediary was then present between the producer and consumer, the capitalist. The worker no longer possessed his own labor power, but was obliged to sell that labor power as a commodity on the open market. Labor power is different from all other commodities in the fact that it has the capacity to create value and value above that of its market value to the capitalist. Karl Marx considered the value of that labor power as a commodity to be the wage necessary to sustain the worker for the next day's labor. That is, a subsistence or survival wage, which varied from country to country depending on various factors. Naturally, if say three hours labor were necessary for the worker to earn his daily subsistence, then all hours worked above that time were pure profit for the capitalist. As a consequence, hours of work became exceedingly long, but obviously, some hours of sleep were needed for the worker to recuperate. Any time that machinery lay idle was a loss of potential profit for capitalists and so different shifts were organized to take advantage of all 24 hours in the day. If the intensity of labor were increased, then the result was more profit and consequently speedups of production lines and coercive, brutal foremen were commonplace. Obviously, little attention was given to safety conditions or pollution in the factories. Child labor became prevalent because children were more adept and agile at certain tasks and their subsistence wage or that of a whole family was less. The only exceptions I would make to the survival wage were in countries like China, where labor was so superabundant that capitalists were willing to work people to death and simply replace them. Another example is King Leopold of Belgium who worked thousands of natives to death in the Belgian Congo to enrich himself.

The objective I have in relating all the information above is that these conditions of subsistence wages, child labor, long hours, brutal foremen, unsafe working conditions, etc. are precisely those presently existing for millions of people in the sweatshops run by multinational corporations in the Third World. Karl Marx is accurately describing the reasons that millions of children and adults in Asia, Africa and Latin America live in abject poverty and misery. Thus, he again illustrates his relevance to the world today.

The reason that worker's lives improved in Europe and the United States is that labor unions were organized and forced the capitalists to pay more than just a subsistence wage, required them to eliminate child labor and unsafe working conditions and reduce pollution. Capitalists did not do these things voluntarily or because capitalism created such great wealth that they decided to let a little trickle down to the workers. Anything magnanimous they do puts them at a competitive disadvantage with other capitalists. That is why capitalists now move factories from country to country constantly seeking the cheapest labor.

Marx made one prediction that I disagree with somewhat. He maintained that since millions of people were initially usurped of their wealth and lives as independent workers by the capitalists during a period of prolonged violence and other odious methods, it should be much easier now that the means of production are socialized for millions of workers to take back that wealth from the few who stole it or their descendants. I don't think he realized the power and sophistication of the modern media that would come into existence and its ability to convince workers that their interests and those of the capitalists are identical, or that they too by hard work and perseverance can become capitalists themselves and exploit the labor of others-the Horatio Alger myth.

The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley must have been thinking along the same lines as Karl Marx when he wrote these lines to inspire resistance by the working class:
"Rise like lions after slumber in unconquerable numbers
Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many, they are few."
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Re: The Relevance of Marxism
28 Jan 2004
I think Marx is more relevent today then ever, many youthful anti-authority kids who populate the resistance movement within the usa do not acknowledge the value of Marxism, and I think that is a great fault.

The Progress Publishers edition of the 3 volumes of Kapital, by the way, has wonderful introductions that support and back Marx to this day, and can be bought for 25.00 (for all 3 volumes!)