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Learning from Karl Marx

Posted on: January 08, 2017

Category: Theology

Learning from Karl Marx

Academic friends of mine have often said that the problem with Karl Marx's economic theories is that they require an education to understand. This isn't a put-down of anyone (me in particular). It's an admission that in an age of ease, Marx is a hard sell.

Still, Karl Marx (1818-1883) is good to know about. His criticisms of capitalism are worth hearing. And as we face a new year and a new, potentially scary, political administration in the U.S., Marx might gain new significance.

Marx is commonly associated with communism, but in fact he had little to say about communism. Communism, which for him was communal ownership and not military dictatorship, was his dream. His reality, though, was capitalism. He had a lot to say about capitalism.

Space limits this discussion, so let's focus quickly on three big words important to Marx: value, commodity, and the nation-state. To Marx the key to any economic function is trade. Even in the most basic relationships of ancient humans, trade means survival. To be able to give something you have for something you do not have is what makes communal relationships possible. Humans survive on a grand scale as communities. Historically, that act of basic exchange remained humble, but in the industrial revolution the ability to produce surplus commodities increased dramatically. Before, you might have been able to produce a few hundred widgets in a given year, but now with rising industry you could produce thousands upon thousands. This means that there is a vast amount of surplus widgets. The exchange value of the widgets now rests on the volume of sales rather than the immediate needs of your neighbours. Marx's first big insight was that industrialization creates a surplus economy in which value rests not in labour but in money. Industry always wants more surplus; which means, industry always wants more money.

Secondly, Marx defined the commodity in a new way. He saw that industrialization created an abstract relationship to what is produced in the pursuit of more and more surplus (money). So, the equation for valuing a commodity is no longer found in the return value of exchange. The value becomes abstract. It is found in the market place as stock, investments, capital gains, and monetary exchange rates. In other words, when we talk about the value of things, we talk about everything except the labour of the person who actually made the item. This turns labour from a value into a cost. Human life is counted as a cost in the act of production that takes away from the final value of the item. If an owner can pay an employee less, the item the owner produces has higher surplus value.

Finally, Marx indicated that a nation-state - Canada, the U.S., or you name it - relies on surplus for taxation, and taxation makes the apparatus of the state possible. Marx had 19th Century England in mind, but we can see what he means today when we think about what is included in the apparatus of the state: the military, the civil service, the legal system, and various activities to entice patriotic feelings. In other words, the nation-state displaced the old "kingdom" to become a creation of industrial surplus. What happens, in Marx's mind, is that industry generated patriotic nationalism starts to become more important than community relationships. Marx sees here the rise of major modern problems like large scale (industrial motivated) war and deeply rooted (patriot motivated) racism. To be "un-American" or "un-Canadian" or "un-somebody" is to be labelled as a cost rather than a value to the nation-state identity. Though Marx probably could not have imagined, he was right that in industrial societies sections of human beings, based on ethnic background, sexual orientation, class status, or other fictional anomalies, are regularly assumed to be a "cost" to the well-being of the patriotic nation-state. Modern day prejudice to Marx is the consequence of human beings becoming a "cost" in the modern industrial machine that values commodity surplus.

It is not difficult for anyone who sees human beings as "value" rather than as "cost" to critique (and worry about) modern capitalism and where it may lead us. It is especially not hard to critique (and worry about) where the new U.S. administration will take our world. It is possible that the re-negotiation of Free Trade deals is a good thing. Since Free Trade deals seek to increase surplus value for the partner nations, they are based on interpreting labour (human beings) as a cost. It could be good to re-consider this. The worry over the new U.S. administration, though, is that the motivation for looking at trade deals as well as international relationships is based on patriotism, which is a nationalist form of egoism. When the President-elect is excessively narcissistic and possibly sociopathic, this is a legitimate cause for concern. The world might well see, due to an inability to address issues coupled with an abnormal instinct for self-defense, an increase in violence, prejudice, and military activity. This is a danger to everyone, and it addresses no single underlying problem, which Marx would tell us is the problem of misplaced value.

I am a theologian, not an economist, but even a theologian can say and can advocate that Karl Marx was right. True value is found in human life. Human beings betray their own integrity when value is transferred to commodities. It's an easy lesson. It's something we all know. Perhaps we are entering a time when this easy lesson that Karl Marx so significantly defined should become more than a critique but also the motivation for our actions.

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