I just finished reading a comics book that did a pretty decent job explaining Marxism. If only more people would understand what Marxism actually is, and if sophisticated Leftist academics would actually seek to change their society and make Marxism available to the wider public, then we could have a reasonable debate on the values and flaws of Marxism. Alas, this book is a good step in the right direction.
In the same vein, I thought it useful to offer insights on the subject even at the fault of lacking theoretical knowledge or making imperfect arguments.
Why some of Marx’s points are relevant for today even if Marxists are clueless
Marx had a few major points that are very relevant for today even as most self-proclaimed Marxists seek to obscure his teachings and do not wish to see society undergo a major transformation since then they would not have victims to pity, nor would they earn a living at a university using a jargon no one understands.
There is a basic flaw in the world economy then as today, which overtime is becoming more and more astute.
Imagine you are a head of a company that produces washing machines. Remember that your sole motivation is to make as much money as possible. So what do you do? First you employ people in France, where you are from, but that is too expensive since your workers want French salaries, so you open a factory in Vietnam. In Vietnam, you hire local workers and can be them, let’s say, 15% of what you paid people in France. But then you discover that machines can do the work. So you invest some money in machines, and don’t need to pay workers. But then how do your former workers have money to buy your machines since they are unemployed? Well, they don’t. So maybe they buy a cheap replica, a fake one, made in China for a third of the price.
What is the problem in the large scale then?
In a society where profit is the sole motive, in the small picture it makes sense, since everyone wants more for themselves. But in the large picture, it’s actual madness. Since if profit is the sole motive, than what is more profitable: health or disease? Of course disease. Which is why preventive medicine is widespread in Cuba and people enjoy long lives there while it is almost non-existent in western capitalist countries. What is more profitable, making a shirt that lasts 30 years, making a shirt that lasts 10 years, or making a shirt that lasts one year? One year is the most profitable, but then it can’t be too obvious that it’s quality is not so great, since people will not buy it. And of course, factories that produce long-lasting goods still exist, but they are either mostly in countries where some small industries still remain, traditional societies where people still go to the local tailor or shoe-maker, or are produced by well-known designers that produce high quality clothes for a price that is not affordable for most (which is fair enough).
Then there is another problem: Monopolies.
State monopolies can result in lethargy and in inefficient services. But when free competition reins will we have better companies? Yes and no.
In the short run, competition means lower prices. But in the long run, large companies will buy out the smaller ones and run them out of the market, and thereby develop immense monopolies (via mergers) which no one can stop and which are large enough to bribe or pay off existing governments and politicians. The problem with this is that we all suffer, since we are forced to rely on huge monopolies (Google, Amazon etc.) that not only store vast information about us but also kill off any local or national alternative and therefore kill distinct cultures and other ways of expression. For example, can a small store owner with local produce compete with the local supermarket chain that provides vegetables that are from a different region and less expensive since they are mass-produced but have less taste? No, it cannot. The small shop will go out of business usually (unless it has some kind of advantage such as being open on public holidays when the large networks are closed).
In the large picture, we’re moving into an era where everything will be robotized (no need for a work force), and tens of millions of people will be without jobs (and won’t have consumption power either). That is inevitable within Capitalism and Marx explained that well.
There are some major problems with Marxism, however.
First, he claimed that eventually the lower-earning people will rebel and create a new society, and that his theory (which is explained in the comics book) is scientific. But so far, history shows that rebellion is not inevitable. In fact most people accept the way things are and move deeper into poverty and to them it’s normal.
Secondly, Marx mocked spirituality and religion and saw no real value in it. That was because he came from the scientific-rational tradition. But nowadays it is becoming clear that most people are in need of spirituality or religion, that there is evidence for the existence of a Divine Mystery that surpasses our human capacities (just as the drop cannot grasp the ocean, we cannot fully understand the Divine), that earning a decent living is not enough and people have spiritual hunger too (note the depression common among many in the suburbia, the middle class’ need for anti-depressants, the turn to religion of second generation Muslim immigrants in Europe etc.).
Marx’s view is that everything is produced by materialism, that money produces theories, that our views are dependent on our financial background. That is partially true but is not the whole picture. Yes, poor people have a different way of seeing the world, but also affluent people who didn’t receive sufficient emotional warmth from their parents for example, have a distorted view of the world. So, it is partly true that things are produced by materialism but not the whole story.
The bigger problem is how ‘rationalism’ is proving itself to be inadequate in capturing fully our world. For example, there are many things science cannot explain, supernatural events do occur all around the globe and across cultures, and alternative medicine in some cases has cured more than conventional medicine (treating Cancer for example).
Thirdly, Marx never really explained how a more just society will come into being. But one of the major problems of the Frankfurt School and their descendants (Marcuse, Adorno, Derrida etc.) is that they had the financial background and academic comfort to go on to explaining oppression in the smallest detail and explaining how little we actually know (minority groups are oppressed, our language doesn’t truly cover reality how complex it is, everything we know as true is a social construction etc. etc.) but their theories actually have probably no relevance for people who are starving, in need of medical care, or uneducated.
In other words, the neo-Marxists could only indulge in theoretical musings once their own material needs have been guaranteed, even as they critique simpler, cruder forms of Marxism.
They also have a blind faith in humans ability to live up to higher standards if left uncontrolled, but even recent events in Venezuela where chaos reins due to a weak government, demonstrate that people will not always act in a noble manner even after ‘oppression’ is removed.
Fourthly, many on the new Left critiqued and criticised the oppression enacted by Soviet and Communist regimes, although these regimes made major headways in the overcoming poverty, health and education. However, the new Left, since it doesn’t believe in coercion of any kind, cannot really explain how a new and better society will be established.
Instead, it blindly believes in the rationality of humans, but we see very often how imperfect humans are, and how they tend to delude themselves and justify every behavior they will carry out. Soviet regimes on the other hand, resulted in the development of corrupt people in government who could freely abuse the system, and killed the free initiative of people who did not see the hope or possibility of gaining more for their efforts.
In any case, to me personally it is clear our world is entering a crisis which is only beginning due to the problems in the current economic model we have, and that things will get far more worse (more wars, since wars are profitable as I explained earlier, and more chaos).
It is not at all inevitable that there will be some kind of positive transformation, things can indeed only get worse. But the advantage is that the more the economic crisis will hit a growing number of people, the more people will be forced to think of an alternative. Inevitably, in my opinion, this alternative will have to involve an element of coercion to succeed, and will have to benefit the majority of people, but not everyone.
A key problem in today’s confusion is that the young generation in Europe for example, is very unhappy with the status-quo but it doesn’t really know what it wants.
For example, in France, a significant number of voters said they will vote for the presidential candidate who protects animals, a noble cause, no doubt, but not the most urgent one these days. People want both capitalism and socialism, and human rights and law and order.
It’s possible to have more of a synthesis but ultimately in our real world everything has a price, and having everything at the same time is impossible.
Our young generation doesn’t know it has to make tough choices, as a spoiled brat it prefers to pretend it can have everything. But as the recent election campaign in France reveals, promises are nice but having everything is impossible.
For example, if you want to have less terrorism, you cannot allow everyone into your country without checking. If you want to have better education and healthcare that is public, you have to tax people for that, and probably even need to cut yourself off from the global economic order and focus internally on improving the lives of your citizens. And so on.
A better world is possible, but it comes at a price. Alas, few are honest or brave enough to ask themselves what is that price and if they are willing to pay it. But with time, asking such questions will become necessary, or things will continue to deteriorate, which is also equally plausible.