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Karl Marx and Political Economy

Marx’s thoughts on political economy and his critiques on capitalism stem from the question that all human society must face; what must we do to survive? Mainstream economics questions how we organize ourselves to meet the unlimited wants of people by allocating scarce resources. The political economy focuses on social institutions and the implications that the economy creates. Marx saw economics as the key to any society. Through the modes of production, classes form and changes occur. He saw capitalism as, “simply the latest in a series of modes of production and that it, too, will yield to some other mode of production in the future” (Sackrey, 27). Capitalism is rooted in historic change. His ideas of surplus value from private property, systems of command from class separation, and a general commodification of man and labor through estrangement tarnish the idea of work itself. Private property, systems leading to class separation, and labor estrangement that inequality and ownership create are the fundamentals.

Most important to Marx’s theoretical argument against capitalism is the idea of private property and personal ownership. By owning large portions of land, firms and corporations will control and own all that is produced. As in agriculture, the farmer takes the crop of his land, ownership of the plant, and capital and labor ensure control of whatever is produced to the capitalist. This principle is the basis of many other arguments of Marx. By owning the property you own both the means of the production whatever is produced. In his Communist Manifesto, Marx saw ownership as the inevitable lead to profit maximization. Since capitalists own the property, they, in effect, own the labor time that is put into producing something. This creates class distinction and wealth. “Property in its present form is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labor,” (Communist Manifesto, 8). Ownership provides the luxury of doing what you please with what you produce. This is the notion of the surplus-value, the extra amount that is created by a worker per day. For the most part, this is directly turned into profits.

Bowles expands on many of Marx’s political economy ideas with parallel examples and more importantly, explains how Marx’s ideas have extended into other institutions we see today. For example, he describes how capitalists have taken the notion of ownership and surplus value to create relationships of command and power. By having ownership of labor, the capitalist, with just cause, may fire an employee. Using this to their advantage, capitalists use fear tactics and emotions to influence workers. In chapter three, Bowles explains, “It is the ability of one person or group to control others’ information, playing upon their fears, hopes, insecurities or other emotions…in order to promote the interests of the powerful person,”(Bowles, 55). Private property leads to control of workers and human emotion. Marx would have most likely inferred this as a rational path of capitalism. Where Bowles really expands from Marx is the idea that there is a limit at which labor is no longer the process of production, but becomes extraction. Owning labor time implies that workers owe something back to their employer and must produce the entire time they are at work. The employer extracts as much work as possible. Another way private property creates control, which Marx may or may not have foreseen, is in real estate.

Both Kaufman and Ehrenreich point out examples of this. Those who own private property control aspects of others’ lives external to labor. Ehrenreich points out that real estate markets are inherently going to benefit the wealthy and that low-income housing is not profitable and hard to find. She says that rents are too high to afford the wages that people actually make. Housing becomes similar to the workplace because of the direct effect of private ownership. Kaufman opens her second chapter is with a like issue. She works to help protect the rights of tenants from landlords. As a result of housing laws, rents are held at set prices, however, the selling price is open to the market. Therefore a building owner can make a substantial profit by evicting a tenant in order to resell a property. This point marks a real extreme in capitalism. How far will people go for profit? Marx argued that private property would benefit one group while hurt another which is true, but would he have imagined this in a free society?

The way owners can control various aspects of people’s lives leads to a second problem Marx saw in the nature of capitalism. Control of production would inevitably lead to class separation and inequality in society. Marx pointed out that societies are shaped by opposing forces that lead to economic change. “Economic classes are defined by how the surplus is controlled and used, and classes and the surplus product are the keys to understanding how different economic systems work and how they change”(Bowles, 122). Bowles follows suit to Marx’s argument that the labor in capitalism must be controlled. Today we see the distinction between the capitalist and the worker. Although today the relationship is more complicated, it is evident that Marx’s dialectical approach is still valid. In reference to this, there is a statistic in Sackrey on page 27, that claims that almost 90% of those who work today work for the wealthiest 10%. This shows a clear class distinction as well as an intuitive conclusion of private property. In capitalism, people must produce and others must own production. It is evident that one group controls the other in some way.

We see systems of control in a few main forms in the United States today. The type of power structure that Bowles finds most common today is referred to as “simple control.” It is a top-down organization of work that represents a vertical relationship between worker and employer. It also creates class distinction in a way not as obvious. In terms of class, we identify with those on the same level of the production process. This is a horizontal relationship. Because the producer controls the labor and what is produced, there is an inherent conflict of interest between the two groups. Employers are always going to want more work for a smaller cost. They wish to increase profit. Workers, on the other hand, want fulfilling work and more free time, but the more work that they put in, the more free time the boss gets. This adheres to the class separation Marx saw in capitalism. Furthermore, to push class inequality even further real wages have been decreasing in this country.

Gordon describes the process that has been happening to the working class as the “wage squeeze.” Companies are making more and more today in terms of rising GDP numbers and upper-level income increases. But low wages are getting lower. Class inequality is obvious. Gordon points out another detail that exemplifies capitalism dividing the classes. The increasing number of managerial positions in the economy implies that workers today cannot be trusted. Firms must create a position specifically to monitor their workers. This creates a class distinction in two ways. First, it says that the working class is lazy, incompetent, and perhaps resentful. Second, the working class is physically separated by yet another level from their superiors. The classes are literally separated in the workplace. This, in part, leads to Marx’s third argument of capitalism; labor estrangement. I will return to this later in the essay.

Returning to class separation is the actual class structure. Zweig says, “the American experience is an experience of intense class difference” (Zweig, 9). His beliefs on the class structure in society are very strong and are centered on inequality and separation that the working class faces. “Why has the working class disappeared from the public view?” he asks, (Zweig, 39). It seems that the real working people are hidden or disguised. This is a bit extreme, but Marx’s original argument is that class inequality exists due to economics. Zweig says that not only does class inequality exist, but our society hides and denies it altogether. We tend to think that we do not live in a class society. We see the poor as a separate group altogether, when in fact they are a part of the working-class majority. We have the notion of upward mobility, that if we work hard we can move up. Zweig argues that this gives people a false sense of hope. First of all, there always needs to be people on the bottom in capitalism. Consequently, for any person fortunate enough to “move up,” others must move down, and furthermore, no one can move anywhere without education, talent, a lot of effort, and, most importantly, luck.

The upper class is born, luckily for them, into positions that offer better opportunities. This is class inequality. Income and power shape class according to Zweig, and we relate both of these to the upper class. A result of this that truly exemplifies the difference in the classes is wealth distribution. “Wealth is distributed even more unequally than income” (Zweig, 69). Where income is salary, and wealth, money invested in various assets and savings, the poor do not get a chance to save because of their low income, whereas the rich are getting richer.

“In the class struggle that takes place everyday, members of the owning class try to get as much profit as they can by controlling the labor process” (Kaufman, 59). Kaufman makes a similar point to both Bowles and Gordon here. She makes the point that people aim to improve their situation in life. What Bowles and Gordon do not examine that Kaufman and Zweig both find, is that the working class itself is divided today. In Kaufman’s experience, she sees that workers do not necessarily get along. They are often divided because of racial and gender issues. This divide gives the capitalists more power than if the workers were united. This is just as Marx noted 150 years ago. Zweig also points out how workers segregate themselves in a way that Marx may not have been able to foresee. As we tend to push the “poor” farther outside of society, we subsequently blame society’s problems on them. At the same time, we look to the rich as role-models, because through the media and consumerism, we, too, desire to be rich. To blame problems on them would be hypocritical. So, we vent on the poor and low-level workers. This is self-segregation and in effect, it alienates the workplace.

This departs strongly from Marx’s goal of seeing workers unite. It is the individual mentality of trying to get ahead that, along with class separation and private property, brings us back to Marx’s third point. Labor estrangement. To Marx, man would become alienated to himself through his labor in a capitalist society. Looking at Bowles’s explanation of labor being extracted by employers, we see that labor does in fact become commodified. Marx saw this as a result of capitalism creating meaningless work and low wages. Capitalism de-skills labor through creative destruction and technological advances that eliminate skillful work. This occurs through the motivation of the capitalist to cut costs and maximize profit. Following Zweig’s structure of classes in the workplace and the systems of control that are exerted, the worker is alienated in his setting. There is little hope for advancement and a sense of inferiority. Man is estranged. Labor is forced and turned un-enjoyable, and workers experience this as a detachment from production. People begin to take on their job as an identity because so much time is spent at it. Work itself then becomes alienating.

Alienation creates “individualism” as Zweig refers to it. We become individuals at work and production loses all sense of community. “When man confronts himself, he also confronts other men. What is true of man’s relationship to his labor, to the product of his labor, and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men, and to the labor and the object of the labor of other men” (Marx, Lecture 6, slide 26). Work begins to separate us from those we work with. Marx’s argument is further extended in Ehrenreich’s story, as co-workers, in some instances, are not even allowed to talk to each other. Workers shouldn’t be distanced from their labor, but they are when they are forced to work “alone.” It is inevitable that we will care less about our work because any labor that is done and anything that is produced belongs to the capitalist.

Bowles explains that it is human nature to be interested in what we are doing, and when we aren’t we feel estranged. This is central to Marx’s argument. Working without interest kills the human spirit. Another extension to what Marx is saying that Bowles poses is that work is made ambiguous through voluntary contracts. Workers and employers come to an agreement about a specific job, its responsibilities, and wages. What is ambiguous, however, is the amount of control an employer has and the amount of effort an employee must put into the job. And these are what truly define our work experience. In effect, what the contract does is give the employer the power to fire. Laborers work to keep from getting fired rather than to produce. These are the fear tactics mentioned above. This estranges people from work in the fact that we no longer work to produce. We work to please someone just enough to keep a job, but not much harder because it is unlikely that extra work will be rewarded.

People are naturally motivated to work through. Throughout human existence, working has not been viewed as something people dislike. We are naturally motivated to perform work for numerous reasons. We are complex beings and we feel socially responsible for each other on very basic levels. Through Marx’s fundamentals, private property leading to ownership and hence a class separation that creates class inequality and estrangement of man from his labor and himself, the majority of us lose most, if not all motivation in the workplace. We are hired to be productive, but the structure of work discourages independent thought, meaningful work, enjoyment, a sense of fulfillment, and that which makes us want to work in the first place. Work becomes negative and production; a paradox.

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