As part of their Genius of the Modern World documentary series, the BBC dedicate their opening episode to one of history’s most divisive figures: Prussian-born political philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx.
Marxism is the most influential methods of socioeconomic analysis ever, and has shaped the past century like no other ideology. Focusing his understanding of society around materialistic factors, Marx argues the ownership of means of production is the primary driving force not only in how we organise society since the beginning of civilisation, but also how humans interact and behave.
Accordingly, even things like religion, the arts and entertainment must be seen through a systematic lense, as mere functional distractions.
Marx goes back to land ownership in medieval societies, slavery through to today’s large corporations and as illustrations that power and relationships are economically determined. In his theory, capitalism represents the final necessary stage of history before the switch to a perfect communist society. He saw capitalism as an uncontrollable and unsatisfiable beast, flawed by its very nature because dependent on never-ending growth.
In order to generate surplus capital (profit), capitalism must by definition be exploitative of workers. Our outlook of the world hence, must be understood in the context of the unequal relationship between working classes and the minority profiting from their struggle.
Communism shaped around collectively-owned communes will supposedly bring an end to injustice. In more current words, this means all Apple workers should own an equal share of the pie rather than work 20 hour days in abject conditions in a Chinese factory.
The documentary looks at how Marx’s personal circumstances such as his friendship and with Friedrich Engels helped shape some of his most well-known work, such as Das Kapital and the original Communist Manifesto.
Marx’s idea of a perfectly equal society, though in theory a recipe to end inequality, have been heavily criticised for very valid reasons such as the utopian naivety with which it overlooks the reality of human greed. Marxism virtually disregards the role of free will altogether, and played a key ideological role in legitimising some of the most repressing and blood-thirsty regimes the world’s ever known.
Marx also fails to recognize the economic benefits of capitalism, such as the major progress capital can bring through investment in infrastructure, medical research, etc. He also never acknowledges the practical truth that whilst an artisan economy produces expensive goods few can afford, capitalism creates a system of affordable goods which caters for all classes.
Marx’s theory has come and gone with time, usually returning when capitalism faces its inevitable crisis and the ravaging consequences which come with it. This time though, it appears populism has chosen the nationalist bigotry and excesses of Trump and Brexit as the ideological answers. Given the decreasing power of nation states in the global economy, this comes as little surprise.
With the gap between the 1% and the rest at an all time-high and unskilled workers increasingly squeezed out by exponentially growing technological advances, Marx’s ideas seem more relevant than ever. While some of his writing appears rooted in a long gone Victorian age, today’s super-rich who play by different rules set offshore are arguably the modern answer to the privileged aristocracy of his time.
Marx once wrote of his peers: philosophers have interpreted the world in different ways. The point, however, is to change it. Will capitalism’s excesses cause the brutal revolution Marx prophetised some 150 years ago now, or will it give us an advanced, quasi-automated society self sufficient enough to guarantee universal basic income and unprecedented level of freedom from labour, as was almost legislated in Switzerland a few weeks ago? I know which one I’d prefer!
To find out about Marx’s ideas from people who know their stuff instead of my ramblings, check out Genius of the Modern World on the BBC iPlayer.