Uncommon Common Sense – September 2011

Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

Reconsidering Marx

Is it a good time to reconsider the philosophy of Karl Marx? Of course, this may seem counterintuitive. After all, wasn’t Karl Marx responsible for the failed Communist systems in the former USSR, Red China, North Korea, etc?  Well yes, and no.  He was a philosopher living in London who wrote the Communist Manifesto, to be sure.  But according to Terry Eagleton, professor at the University of Lancaster in England, blaming Karl Marx for these repressive communist regimes would be a bit like blaming Jesus Christ for the Inquisition! 

Marx’s greatest contribution was his critique of capitalism. He recognized that capitalism has been an incredibly successful system in many respects. It essentially brought the West out of the feudal system and created an unprecedented high standard of living.  He credits the great capitalists of the 19th century for their success. Nevertheless, he points out, this economic success tends to come at a price. Affluence for some comes at the expense of poverty and exploitation of others.  As he witnessed capitalist London in the middle of the 19 century, he questioned whether it was a fair system. As Eagleton notes Marx’s concerns: “Equality for some meant inequality for others, and freedom for some brought oppression and unhappiness for many. The system’s voracious pursuit of power and profit had turned foreign nations into enslaved colonies, and human beings into the playthings of economic forces beyond their control. It had blighted the planet with pollution and mass starvation, and scarred it with atrocious wars.”

It’s easy to dismiss Marx as the father of a failed ideology, and that may be correct.  We don’t hear much talk of resurrecting Communism these days.  Yet, without question, Marx’s contributions to the critiques of capitalism still ring true 168 years after the publication of The Communist Manifesto.

As we consider the world today, we see unprecedented progress in many areas of industry and commerce.  Yet, we continue to see corporations shutting down production in western nations to shift the work to third world countries where they can exploit the low wages and where they can operate without strict environmental laws.  We see a world where our planet is becoming polluted and our climate is drastically changing. We see 50 million people in the US, the richest country in the world, without medical insurance. We see the richest one percent of the population controlling an enormous percentage of the wealth.  We see the poor around the world living with substandard sanitation and inadequate nutrition.

Karl Marx was right in his criticism of the capitalist system. The free market may be good for business, but it has no conscience. He could see this in the squalid conditions in London.  We continue to witness how unparalleled wealth among some is only possible through scarcity and poverty among others. Our capitalist system requires that we spill blood for oil to keep feeding our economic system. The workers, on whose back the economy is based, are often disposable and exploited. 

We can see it here in Mexico.  We may be living comfortably, benefitting from the wealth the capitalist system has produced. But our comfort and affluence here is based on others living with unreasonably low wages and scarcity. Socialism might have become a dirty word, but Marx’s aphorism, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” may be more relevant now than ever.

Ojo Del Lago
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