Over 200 years after his birth, this article reflects on the challenges that Marx predicted would curse the future of capitalism – and why such predictions have or haven’t come true. In the process, we begin to understand not only the intricate mind of Karl Marx but the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism itself.
Few names carry as much notoriety and controversy than that of Karl Marx; the radical German philosopher who inspired unprecedented progress and oppression throughout the industrial world. Although known for his contributions to a multitude of fields, ranging from philosophy to economics, most of Marx’s works are bound by an interdisciplinary skepticism of the industrial market-based system forming around him. Marx, recognizing economics as the key to history, was religiously fixated on the injustices of the capitalist structure. The result is a collection of work which changed the course of history – for better and worse.
Capitalism has undergone a dramatic transformation since the day of Marx, although much has stayed the same. Both past and current challenges expose truths of the capitalist structure which has built the modern world and should be analyzed, as done critically by Marx. Therefore, over 200 years after his birth, we should reflect on the challenges which Marx predicted would curse the future of capitalism – and why such predictions have or haven’t come true. In the process, we shall hopefully begin to understand, not only the intricate mind of Karl Marx but the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism itself.
On Global Inequality
“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”
– The Communist Manifesto
Marx predicted that the industrial class system would soon create the basis, structurally and ideologically, of a new global society – one bound by an oppressive international class structure. In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx outlined his belief that the markets cannot be geographically confined, and that great surplus would only result in the need for even higher surplus, thus causing the markets to spread and ultimately cover the globe with a new, international system which would erode national borders and result in unprecedented global inequality. The Communist Manifesto later continues:
“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country… it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged … by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations … it creates a world after its own image.”
Many 21st Century readers with an understanding of globalization can draw parallels between the global establishment which Marx described and the corporate institution of global neoliberal capitalism which has shaped virtually all of today’s respective governments and the relations between them. Today’s global economic structure, one of unprecedented interdependence, commerce, and ‘free trade’ has, indeed, reshaped the world in the image of state-enforced capitalism. The international dynamic of powerful governments working on behalf of the private sector has significantly impacted every nation on the planet, often utilizing national militaries to enforce their will. Western imperialism (and much of American foreign policy as a whole) is the manifestation of the markets urge to spread and make both the most advanced and the most vulnerable economies functioning in centralized interests.
Marx was correct in his assumption that the rapid trend of global development would continue into future centuries; however, was he correct in his assumption that such development would result in unprecedented poverty and oppression? In 1800, half a century before the writing of the Communist Manifesto, over 80% of the world population lived in conditions which we would now define as “extreme poverty” (according to Gapminder data) with an income comparable to that of today’s most impoverished nations. Over 200 years later, our global society is experiencing the fastest reduction of absolute poverty in history with 10% of the global population living in extreme poverty (according to World Bank data) and an average of 70 million people a year being lifted out of poverty annually. In the last 20 years of liberal globalization, nearly 1 billion people have been risen out of extreme poverty with experts accrediting such developments to unprecedented economic growth and participation in the global economy.
Although this is not to say that all is well under our current system of global capitalism. Marx may have been incorrect as to if his time would result in even more poverty, but he was correct that inequality would steadily increase to unprecedented levels after his time. In 1850, the Mean Logarithmic Deviation (MLD, which is zero when everyone makes the same income) for total inequality was at 0.48. By 2018, that number nearly doubled to 0.83. Likewise, inequality between nations increased exponentially with an MLD of 0.11 in 1850 to an astronomical 0.49 in 1990. For every dollar developing nations make, the Western elite make ten more. Thus, as the institution of globalized capitalism produces an unprecedented surplus, the wealth of billions who begin to rise out of poverty still pale in comparison to that gained by a select few who utilize the developing labor. In these ways, Marx’s predictions for global hierarchy both did and did not come true.
On the Future of Government and Democracy
According to Marx, democracy necessitates equality; thus, true democracy cannot be attained in a class-based society. He believed that the grotesque inequality and hierarchy which results from a class-based system are directly contradictory to the premise of democracy; which demands widespread equality of power and authority – a characteristic which has proved impossible when the power held by the electorate is overshadowed by the economic power wielded by the wealthy. Any attempt to form a “democratic state” in the capitalist framework, he believed, is futile as it will be confined to the crippling limitations of capitalism and any institution which punishes crime, sanctions morality or reinforces a form of hierarchy is inherently oppressive, especially when influenced by capitalist incentives. Thus, he predicted that the human need for democracy and freedom would eventually be achieved, not by reform of the state, but by the complete abolition of government altogether. Only when we collectively focus on the decentralization of power altogether (which Marx predicted would be the natural next step in human history) would we enable a real democracy, purely mutual exchanges, and a return to the life of community over profit.
Marx’s vision for the future of government’s role was embodied during his time in the 1871 Paris Commune; a short-lived social structure which arose via popular revolution after the French failed to protect Paris from the Prussians. The revolutionaries, after taking key military and government sites, elected a Central Committee composed of workers, businesspeople, office workers, journalists, and writers to oversee their new commune. These committee members, the closest thing to “politicians,” could be deselected at any point by popular vote and none were able to make more than the average citizen of the commune. Their position was mostly to formulate proposals and organize elections as all decisions made in the municipality, which lacked any singular leader or bureaucratic hierarchy, would be made by widespread consensus and direct democracy. Notable examples of such decisions included the abolition of the death penalty, the elimination of military conscription, and the illegalization of interest accrual on debts. Alongside this, the commune ruled that workers could take over a business if abandoned by its owner and prohibited employers from fining workers as a form of discipline. Although there have been multiple communes similar, the Paris Commune serves as the best example thus far of what Marx envisioned for the future of government and democracy; one of minimal authority, direct democracy, and complete transparency. As popular culture begins to break free of capitalist habits and tendencies, the state, Marx famously declared, would “wither away.”
As we look around the world today, true democracy may indeed be impossible under a class-based system as the world’s republics continue to be plagued with corporate corruption and disproportionate class power. The social dynamic which we saw in the Paris Commune simply could not be replicated within capitalist society as it would necessitate a completely equal society; which is impossible in a system dependent on class hierarchy. However, there is still value in the Marxist perception of democracy, even when confined to a capitalist framework. The Marxist emphasis on a small, transparent state led to the widespread ability of initiative, referendum, and recall, which allowed the Parisians to participate in and regulate the committee’s decision-making process. Furthermore, the Paris Commune lacked any form of bureaucracy, corruption, or oppression; likely caused by the decentralization of power, transparency of the state, and equal control of the electorate. Thus, with much of today’s republics plagued with corruption and abuses of power, we can still learn from the Parisians and the Marxist notion of democracy.
However, it is worth noting the potential of government in a pre-revolution society. Although the state will likely always act on behalf of private interests, it can still be utilized to in ways which benefit the middle and lower class; including policies of workplace regulation, welfare to the disadvantaged and equitable taxation. However, this is only achieved when there is severe pressure put on the establishment, as done in the early twentieth century (epitomized in the New Deal) and then for a short period in the sixties. Most socialists believe that equality is ultimately achieved by the abolition of government, but only after the dismantling of capitalism.
Ultimately, Marx’s prediction of the state’s decline only applied to the post-capitalist world; thus, it is too early to deem invalid or fulfilled. However, Marx’s failed prediction of revolution is telling in itself, both of his philosophy and the capitalist society which it critiques.
On Revolution (and Conclusion)
Marx perhaps underestimated the level of opposition which the West would bring forth in response to capitalism. Marx believed that class consciousness would ultimately overthrow nationality as the primary source of social loyalty and, in the face of a system which will turn masked exploitation into naked robbery, the lower and declining middle classes will revolt against the capitalist system. Ultimately, capitalism is solely dependent on the consent of the masses, often given not on prosperity or content, but rather our futility and perceived dependence on the system. Marx predicted that, when the levels of global inequality grew so high that the majority of citizens were living in absolute poverty, the masses would no longer consent to a system of such oppression.
In many ways, we did indeed witness the revolt to capitalism in the form of Communist revolutions throughout the 20th century, although they quickly became corrupted by ideological elaborations such as Stalinism, which hardly align with the intent of Marxist ideology. This fact is most apparent when we compare the authoritarian Soviet regime to the aspirations of anarchist societies such as the Paris Commune. As Marx spoke tirelessly of the flaws in capitalism and created an urgent sense of revolution, he left much of the solutions up for interpretation – ultimately being utilized to justify new forms of Eastern authoritarianism; as seen in the Soviet Union other Communist regimes. However, many of the ideals of orthodox Marxism, such as social equality and rejection of the market-based system are embraced, however manipulatively, in many Eastern cultures today. As a result, Marx’s image has been used extensively in the East to symbolize the values and regimes which he was used to justify throughout the last century.
As for the Western world, we may not have developed the socialist utopia which Marx envisioned, but we have indeed inched closer to a more humane form of the system which Marx observed. In 1850, there were very little, if any, laws protecting employees from unsafe work conditions and most nations had few welfare programs for the poor and disadvantaged. Throughout the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, there was an unprecedented Western reform movement, primarily inspired by the message of socialism, set to combat the injustices of industrial capitalism. What resulted from the labor movements was a redefined economic system; one with unionization in every major industry, regulation over business practices, and a more efficient taxation system to encourage the redistribution of wealth. Alongside it, came a redefined state; one which wielded the ability to abolish monopolies, protect workers from unsafe and unethical business practices, enforce higher taxes, and give more voice to the overall electorate (17th & 19th Amendments).
Furthermore, as the world became richer, many of the workers were eventually given enough wealth and security to live somewhat comfortably; working in generally safe conditions, being able to afford somewhere to live, occasionally having the opportunity to afford personal desires. Despite the increasing levels of inequality, the simultaneous increase of overall wealth allowed for a new distribution; one even enough for even lower-class workers to become consumers and for many to gain the comfortably and dependence to accept (or ignore) capitalism’s intrinsic flaws. Western culture has also shifted since the 19th century to mask and justify some of capitalism’s limitations; a reasonably new emphasis on lower-class consumerism, a rebranding of class identity, and an acceptance that the existing system is the only option.
So why haven’t Marx’s predictions of revolution yet come to fruition? In many ways, they have – just not as radically as Marx anticipated. Instead of getting objectively worse, capitalism has gotten exponentially better for a majority of the world; rising millions out of poverty and ushering a new age of technological and societal advancements. However, even a socialistic version of capitalism is still, at heart, capitalism – and thus will always be plagued with crisis’ of instability and inequality. Indeed, the West has made great advances since the days of Marx (for the benefit of all classes), but we cannot trust that it will continue to get better, as we have seen from the last 40 years of regression. Therefore, we must choose whether tomorrow’s solutions will be compatible with modern capitalism or if our economic structure will need to adjust (or be replaced completely) to ensure further prosperity in generations to come.
Whether we decide capitalism is for the best of our future or not, it is equally pivotal for us to read the ideas of Marx and to understand the intrinsic flaws of the system which we have inherited. Only then, can one truly understand the limitations of the system which we have chosen to confine ourselves to.
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