Tag Archives: Capitalism

Commie Notes


Wednesday I lectured in a somewhat coherent fashion on the relevance of the Communist Manifesto for the study of US history and culture. Let me recapitulate the most salient aspects of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ pamphlet (which, as I said in class, is globally the most significant political tract ever published).

The CM opens as a ghost story: the “specter of communism” has appeared, frightening the owners of capital, those Marx calls the bourgeoisie, a French term for capitalists. Why would capitalists be frightened of communists? According to Marx, because the latter are dedicated to the absolute overthrow of capitalism– in a word, revolution.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At one time the bourgeoisie itself was a revolutionary class, destroying the old order of feudalism and building a new system based on private property and investment.

The first section of the CM is primarily concerned with history, and to that end Marx gives us a model of historical change, a theory of history that would eventually come to be known as “the materialist conception of history.” In another text Marx had claimed that

“We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process.”

At issue here is a philosophical principle, one which holds that in order to understand the world– and, indeed, to change it– we must begin not with our ideas about things but those things themselves. The study and criticism of history, then, is above all concerned with material forces: how people subsist and reproduce themselves through their labor, the movement of populations, the rise of new technologies, etc. Who we think we are and what we think we are doing are outgrowths of our  basic material condition, a product of the way that society is organized. Marx encapsulates this idea with the assertion that

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

What follows is a brief and pungent history of the fall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism, “the modern bourgeois society [which] has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society,” a transformation that, far from dispelling the antagonism between classes, has, in fact, simply deepened those contradictions. As the bourgeoisie grows in size and power, so does another class, the proletariat, which Marx describes as those “who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.” Proletarians “must sell themselves piecemeal, [they] are a commodity… and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” The bourgeoisie own, and by owning increase their wealth. The proletariat own nothing but their capacity to labor, which they are compelled to sell as a commodity in order to survive.

Note that for Marx one of the watershed events in the rise of capitalism is the “discovery of America” and the ensuing extraction of massive amounts of wealth from the western hemisphere which was then funneled directly into Europe. We talked about this development in passing on Wednesday, and it bears repeating: the production of raw commodities such as tobacco, sugar, tin, silver, cotton, etc. with slave labor essentially built the great cathedrals and cities of Europe. The opening of what was at that time called “the antipodes” for intensive agriculture and mineral exploitation provided an incredible boost for early capitalism, ultimately creating fortunes which would be invested in new technologies and fueling the industrial revolution.  Let’s be clear: America was indispensable to the development of global capitalism.

New forms of labor arose and new ways of organizing that labor, from the closed shops of “guild-masters” to the advent of manufacturing centers. The character of work changed: the division of labor separated different activities in the productive process. Work became more specialized. If at one time a craftsman might, for instance, build an entire chair himself, in the new system one worker might lathe the chair’s legs while another wove its seat and yet another assembled the finished parts.

As these changes in labor transpired, a world market was rapidly emerging, an example of which might be the triangular trade. New transportation and communication technologies emerged, such as steam power and, in the 19th century, telegraphy.

Yet this new economic system was rife with contradictions and depended on ceaseless transformation:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

A key characteristic of capitalism, then, is an unending ferment, what Joseph Schumpeter identified as a dynamic of “creative destruction.” That principle of constant change is related to another core trait of capitalism: the absolute necessity for growth. As local resources are depleted new sources of raw materials must be obtained. As local markets are saturated, new markets must be created or conquered in order to absorb surplus. The expansion of trade begets new desires:

“In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions 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….”

Now this last passage might sound something like globalization, and indeed it is. Globalization is a process that has been operative since at least the opening of the Silk Route, one that was massively amplified by the industrial revolution and later phases of capitalism.

The development of capitalism over the last 400 or so years, Marx continues, has led to unprecedented demographic changes, to urbanization, to a world-system of economic power in which those nations which are most developed dominate those which are less developed. Capitalism has changed the political character of countries as well, leading the State to centralize its powers and to codify laws, in effect creating governments which reflect the values and ideals of the bourgeoisie.

Yet the capitalist mode of production– in perpetual agitation, constantly expanding, establishing creative powers that dwarf the abilities of all prior civilizations– is prone to crisis. Recessions and depressions follow periods of unprecedented economic growth. Fortunes are made and lost. Whole sectors of the economy become redundant. Industries are plagued by over-production. In order to escape these crises the bourgeoisie must remake the economy, locate new markets, intensify the exploitation of old ones, adjust wages, develop new technologies.

In the coming weeks we’ll be studying a period of history known to scholars as the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (also identified with the unfortunate acronym GAPE). The industrializing landscape of burgeoning American cities were the scorched earth of maturing, late-nineteenth century capitalism. The awesome productive powers of that rapidly consolidating economic system were accompanied by some of the worst depredations of which capitalism is capable. It was in these years that ideas about the relationship of the State to its People were formed. Should Americans be left to struggle individually or did the government have some obligation to intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable? Was capitalism synonymous with the national identity or character? Was democracy at the risk of subversion because of economic inequalities? The ways that ordinary people approached such questions will, I think, give us a fuller understanding of the past and  insight into our own historical moment.