Reading The Communist Manifesto in 2016: The failings of Capitalism
If you think about the world as it was in 1848, Europe was being swept through with wave after wave of revolution. Old monarchies were toppling, to be replaced with as yet untested and untried governments. Philosophers were defining and experimenting with ideas like Capitalism, Democracy, and Communism.
Fast forward to 2016, in the western world we almost take it as a point of fact that Democracy has kind of "won the war" as it were. There are only 5 countries that are still Communist today:
- North Korea
At Communism's height, it held sway in many more countries around the world.
At the time of the cold war, Russia was seeking to dominate the world for many more reasons than simply to spread Communism - and so the idea of Communism itself has almost become synonymous with the cold war.
But the Communist Manifesto was written a hundred years before the cold war. Its purpose was maligned when in fact as a concept it was really about liberating people from oppression and evening the playing field so that all people could be equally successful in life.
So if we put aside our preconceptions, how does the Communist Manifesto read in 2016?
It opens with the famous line:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Throughout the entire history of the human race, we have been divided by "class." In some countries, some cultures, "class" is defined by the family into which you were born, or your race, your economic standing, your sex. If you look at the world in 2016, we are in a world that is more separated by class than any other previous. We have some of the largest income inequalities than the history of the human race. So from that perspective alone, reading the Communist Manifesto in 2016 is a valid and interesting exercise.
Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.
Sometimes I wonder if Marx had foresight when he wrote this line. If you replace "Bourgeoisie" with "the 1%" and "Proletariat" with "the 99%" then this could have been written this year.
Marx talks about how the world used to be governed by lords - the aristocracy - and an enterprising middle-class, then of course menial workers. When we started to go through the industrial revolution, the aristocracy became obsolete. The middle class, too, started to disappear, and instead those entrepreneurs became the new "bourgeoisie", this class of super-wealthy individuals that held the lives of the majority in their hands.
As these wealthy individuals gained power, they started to hold incredible amounts of sway over governments. Sound familiar?
The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
If we look at governments today, we have actually formally created a group of people and made this practice legal - we call it "lobbying", as though sticking a title on it and legitimizing it makes it correct.
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 connexions everywhere.
The way our markets work today, companies must not simply be profitable. A company that is profitable but that has no growth potential is seen as a failure. Shareholders are not interested in anything but growth, since growth is what really drives increases in personal wealth. And so much of our worth as individuals is tied to personal wealth. Simply being self-sustaining is no longer acceptable.
When Marx wrote these statements over 150 years ago, he may as well have been spying into the future.
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 inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.
Can you imagine a single product today that is manufactured in one location? Think of the number of components in your phone, and where all the raw materials come from, how the parts are manufactured.
We are so used to this idea that it no longer seems strange that when we go to the supermarket, we find products from across the globe in the fresh fruits and vegetables aisles. Although you have a resurgence in locally made products and services, this is now seen as quaint and hipster compared to the norm, which is being a member of this global collective of products.
There are many advantages to having this global interconnection, but at the same time, some things are inherently lost.
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?
If we extend his thought here out to our present, we see that since then we have evolved at a crazy speed. 150 years ago there were no cars, no airplanes, no internet. Also, the idea of global warming wasn't even a spark in the mind of scientists, much less a crisis of humanity as it is now. There is only one logical conclusion to our continued evolution - we will either solve these problems or we'll go extinct. Unfortunately the latter seems more likely with our current governments who are focused more on economic gains that environmental ones.
In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.
And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.
I truly feel the plight for our current leaders in their positions. Even if you look at leaders like Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, who has joined the G20 in a commitment to end subsidies for fossil fuel industries, it's so hard to change overnight. Because our economy, and the inter-woven economies of all countries around the world, are so fragile - we can't "afford" to move quickly to address these crises. It's like being on the Titanic, and seeing a gigantic iceberg coming towards us, but the rudder of the ship simply isn't powerful enough to turn the ship in time. The only thing we can do is maybe deflect things enough that we can save some people for the next generation to continue.
All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.
From what we have seen, every now and again a movement starts to arise that tries to deal with the situation we've managed to get ourselves into. Cast your mind back to the banking crisis of the early 2000s and the subsequent Occupy Wall Street movement. This was a perfect example of the large majority, the 99%, trying to band together and rise up against the 1%. Protests began in the United States, but spread into dozens of countries worldwide. Everyone knows that we live in a worldwide society of extreme wealth inequality.
Inequality.org has tracked down the data to help us understand exactly how wealth is evolving. They have many great charts to illustrate how wealth is distributed but I'll just share the most basic one here.
Even if we just compare to the early 90s, the distribution of wealth has spread even further in favour of the richest families. It's hard for most people to even conceptualize how much money they make - and it seems somehow grossly unfair. After all, aren't we all human beings? Sure, some people are more skilled than others, but overall there is no difference in skillset that can account for such a distribution of wealth. When we look at what money was created for, it was a replacement for trade - rather than exchanging a bag of rice for services rendered, you could exchange money instead. So long as all parties are agreed on the value of that money, then we can have an even exchange rate that helps us trade so that we don't need to barter each and every time we need something.
The concept of money and wealth has evolved so far from its original purpose that it's almost hard to understand how this happened. We have created all kinds of fiscal devices to increase our "wealth" - credit, debt, corporations, patents. We feel like these devices are real, tangible things - but in point of fact, they are nothing more than ideas run amok.
But the real problem is, as Marx said, even if all of us decide to say "enough is enough," we can't overthrow this system without overturning the very essence of the way our markets work. And we're so entrenched in this system now that doing so seems impossible.
So far, by reading the first chapter of the Communist Manifesto, we can see with great clarity that Marx and Engels could see what was happening in the early stages of Capitalism - and they didn't like the direction we were heading. So how is it that they were so spot on when it came to our failings, but their proposed solutions failed so direly? Let's take a closer look in my next article - Reading the Communist Manifesto in 2016: The failings of Communism.