What is it that makes me a Marxist? What underlying principle guides my mindset in that direction? Those are the questions I have been asking myself, and I have come to a very basic conclusion. I am not an activist, I like to think, and to try to understand and to articulate the conclusions I come to. So, what conclusions have I come to on this specific area of my min? What is it that makes me a Marxist?
It isn’t about waiting for the “revolution” to come. It isn’t about nurturing an insane idea about a conspiracy in which global power and wealth is controlled by the Bilderbergs. It isn’t about praying every night for the state to control the means of production. It isn’t about ironically displaying a Che t-shirt everywhere I go, or trying to put myself into the exact same camp as Trotsky, or Lenin, or putting a little cross on a political spectrum. It isn’t about wishful rhetoric on stalls across England, handing out Socialist Worker leaflets and declaring that Capitalism is about to fall. It isn’t about turning a blind eye to the fact that thousands of people live off state handouts, purely because they do not wish to work. It isn’t about stooping to the absurdity that the Right Wing often stoops to when it points out the Soviet Union as the failure of Marxism or points to Cuba as the evil of Socialism, because if it were, I could point to Reagan an Thatcher’s support for Pinochet and right winged murderous thugs throughout Central America as proof of the brutality of Capitalism; but i’d be wrong to do so. What makes me a Marxist in the most basic terms, is the necessity to distrust authority that bases itself purely on abstractions, in this case; wealth. Capitalism in this sense, is like religion; we are expected to submit to a higher authority, an authority that actually doesn’t really exist and is purely a construction of the time period that we inhabit. If we look at that constructed power structure from “outside” of the confines of the context of our historical position, we must laugh at the absurdity of our apparent necessity to hand our lives over to people who pay the lowest possible fee for our labour, whilst extracting and squeezing as much out of us. It is degrading, and it certainly isn’t “freedom”.
To expand a little on that, it is the sense that the very foundation of Capitalism – the owner of a business is entitled to the largest piece of the profits, because he invested capital in the first place – is a man made ideal that is loaded with flaws. I will attempt to articulate a couple of the flaws I see.
Firstly, capital by itself is pointless. Capital must fuse with labour to be worth anything. Labour without capital is not pointless. Labour can build, create, innovate, feed and save lives. Capital by itself can do nothing. Capital is a seed in a dark room on a table. Labour is the soil, the sun, and the water. Therefore, the guiding force and the most important aspect of the deal between capital and labour, is labour. If my boss leaves the workplace for a week, the place still runs just fine. If the entire workforce leaves for a week, the company will be in financial peril. That is the practical example of the notion that labour is the most important force in the productive World. Profit on the initial investment, is simply interest, created by someone else. It is not productive in itself. Buying a road and charging people to use it, or buying a house and renting it out, is not productive. Capital is not productive. The fact that it is then passed down to the children of the Capitalists – which makes the claim that Capitalism is based on individual merit, seem laughably hypocritical – suggests a class consciousness within the Capitalist classes; a desire to perpetuate their class attacking meritocratic principles in a sort of Capitalist paradox in which inter-family socialism is desirable, as long as it doesn’t spread beyond their own class.
We talk of productivity of the workforce, not of the capitalists. The labour of the man with the capital is irrelevant. He will usually monopolise some sort of administration work within the company, which need not be monopolised. Apart from that initial injection of capital, he is largely pointless. Stock market speculation and gambling is also not a productive use of capital. The inherent flaws in this system, Marx believed would eventually lead to its downfall.
It is easy for a working public to take shots at people on benefits, as it is all the media tends to talk about. We seem though to turn a blind eye to Corporate tax cuts. It is odd, because people at the top of the Corporate ladder will have used a thriving public sector – education, health service, roads – at some time in their lives which provided the framework necessary to climb the ladder to great wealth. By announcing Corporate tax cuts, the Tory Government is effectively burning the ladder up which their donors climbed to make it difficult for others to follow, destroying opportunity for the next generation, whilst at the same time ensuring that those who used the system previously, now pay as little back into it as possible. Corporate tax cuts represent a huge piece of the Welfare pie, going to the people who need it least. That, is wrong.
Secondly, Marxists recognise the key element of Capitalism is the accumulation of capital. You set out in the market place with capital, you buy labour, you sell your product or service, and you make your capital back with more in profit. All well and good, until you hit what Marx termed as a limit to capital. Capitalism doesn’t deal too well with limits. Limits can include competition, and to get around that limit, capital will buy up competition until there is very little left. It is the reason why large coffee producers can flood African markets, buy up the small family run coffee producers, and put the staff to work for pittance in factories in poor conditions, working extremely long hours. Capital needs to consolidate power. Democracy used to be a limit. Capital bought democracy when it became the norm for multinationals and the super rich to fun political parties and candidates. It is the reason why 81% of the $19,000,000 that was spent on the 2006 election from the big oil lobby, went to the Republican Party in 2006. That money was well spent it seems, given that in the run up to the Bush Administrations refusal to sign up to Kyoto – the climate change UN protocol – briefing emails were leaked from US under-secretary of state, Paula Dobriansky office before meetings which thank ExxonMobil executives “active involvement” in framing climate change policy. Which is odd, because in 2003, Exxon’s head of public affairs, Nick Thomas told a House of Lords Science Committee:
“I think we can say categorically we have not campaigned with the United States government or any other government to take any sort of position over Kyoto.”
He lied. The Bush Administrations climate policy, was dictated to them, by the most powerful and wealthiest oil companies in the US.
Democracy isn’t the only limit to be overcome. The limit in 2007/08 was 25 years worth of stagnating wages for everyone apart from the very wealthy, whose wages increased year on year in Western democracies, most notably in the UK and US. To ensure demand across the marketplace continued to thrive despite wages stagnating, Capitalism blew down this limit, by introducing a market for very very easy credit. The problem with this is that money is now entirely backed by debt and nothing else. The mortgage markets didn’t fail; Capitalism failed. This means that subprime mortgages and the securities that backed them were just products of a system that has crises after crises built into it. Don’t be fooled by the right winged rhetoric that instantly blamed and attacked the public sector and the welfare state. This sovereign debt crises is a crises of Capitalism that has been cleverly shifted away from the people who caused it (people who started off with vast amounts of capital, destroyed the system that allowed them the opportunity to make that fortune, and then left quietly with vast amounts of capital, whilst the rest of us are told we must suffer austerity) an onto the most vulnerable – those who do no have vast amounts of capital or political influence. Capitalism is amoral. Morality is not a part of Capitalism. That is why regulation is necessary.
And lastly, I am deeply suspicious of the very concept of Capitalism in regard to the individual worker. The idea being that the Capitalist advertises a job vacancy because he needs labour to fertilise his capital and gain the profit. The worker needs a job. The Capitalist buys the labour of the worker. The worker consents to allow the Capitalist to live comfortably off the back of his labour, for a very small amount of money – the lowest possible amount actually because the supply of workers is far greater than the demand for production. The worker consents to this rather odd deal, because if he doesn’t, he will starve to death. An example of this can be seen with “Family Dollar”, a chain of US discount stores. The CEO Howard Levine took home base salary of $948,654, a cash bonus of $1,894,615, stocks granted of $1,338,224, and options granted of $1,308,528. So you’d think, with wealth like that, Levine would have the human decency to pay his staff a decent wage, especially given that they are expected to work such long hours? Well, no, unsurprisingly he doesn’t treat his staff all that well. Most of the staff who are expected to work over time, are designated as “managers” at “Family Dollar“. This means that the company can get around the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, by designating the “managers” (who weren’t paid any more) as “exempt“, which meant they do not have to pay them over time. As employees struggle to cope with the horribly low pay and extremely long hours, “Family Dollar” managed to pay out $58 million in dividends in 2010. When workers have to take such awful jobs, working for horrendous bosses, simply to make ends meet, the scales are tipped firmly in the balance of the employer. The deal therefore, is not equal to start with. The Capitalist is driven by the desire to increase profits and buy a lovely new car, by using someone elses labour, to attach to his capital, and them claim some universal right over the product of that labour. The worker on the other hand is driven by survival, despite the fact that he is far more productive than the capitalist. If the business goes bust, it is more than likely that the Capitalist will have money saved, he will certainly have the experience needed to get a job in which he wont have to go long without a regular income. His workers on the other hand, having provided their old boss with the money he saved and now lives on, through their labour rather than his, will now have to either spend whatever little savings they’re likely to have on getting through a period of unemployment without starving, which could be twice as difficult if he lives in the USA and doesn’t have health insurance, and finds himself with a terrible illness.
One of the fathers of Capitalism, Turgot summed up it here:
“In all types of labour, it necessarily follows that the salary of the worker is limited to what is necessary for survival.”
In other words, when more people exist then wages are higher because the pool of labour is smaller, when less labour is needed, wages will slowly fall not because a worker is working less hard, but because a Capitalist can use the threat of starvation to insist on paying his staff less money. Capitalism posits that people are commodities.
To conclude and answer my original question; I am a Marxist because I do not believe the initial investment of capital into a business venture, provides a God-given right to claim the highest wage or the power of the business. The fact that we see this profit making right, as God-given, leads to dangerous games played by a very small amount of people who have accumulated great wealth, an it affects us all. When I sit back and really think about the current Euro zone crises, and the panic in the US over the raising of the debt ceiling, I wonder how humanity is so close to crumbling. We invented money. We invented the concepts of wealth and sovereign debt and price and wage and individual debt and stocks and we seem to think of it all as divine; untouchable; something beyond our grasp, when in actuality, it is all just one big illusion, an abstract concept, a web that we spun and eventually got stuck in. Productive people are still as numerous as they were in the 1990s, there is still the same amount of land, but there is an abundance of debt-backed money rather than savings. The difference is, productive people and land actually exist in reality, debt-backed money and capital on its own doesn’t.
That is why I am a Marxist.