[This is the third blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. Last week started a sub-series on the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really escape Plato’s Cave unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. Last week’s blog entry tried to explain capitalism in three simple phrases: (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings. This week’s episode turns to the main critique of capitalism (Marxism) and to the nature of its alternatives, socialism and communism. Again without judging, it will clearly explain these terms using just three points each and in fewer than 1000 words. I promise.]
Marxism represents the Western tradition’s most trenchant critique of capitalism. Marxism’s three points are as follows: (1) capitalism necessarily exploits workers and the environment, (2) workers will eventually rise up against such exploitation and replace capitalism with socialism, and (3) socialism will eventually evolve into communism. Let’s consider those points one-by-one.
First of all, Marxism’s critique of capitalism holds that the system necessarily exploits workers (and by extension, as we shall see, the environment). The adverb “necessarily” is emphasized here to show that, on Marx’s analysis, the destructive nature of capitalism is not dependent on the personal qualities of individual capitalists. Regardless of their personal virtue or lack thereof, the market mechanism itself forces capitalists to exploit workers (and the environment). This is because, for one thing, workers are forced to enter a labor market whose wage level is set by competition with similar workers seeking the same job. As a result, each prospective employee will bid his competitors down until what economists have called the “natural” wage level is attained. Marx found this “natural” level below what workers and their families need to sustain themselves in ways worthy of human beings.
For Marxists, the capitalist system does not merely exploit workers of necessity. It also necessarily exploits the environment. That is, the market’s supply and demand guidance dynamic punishes the presence of environmental conscience on the part of producers. Thus, for example, a conscientious entrepreneur might be moved to put scrubbers on the smokestacks of his factory and filters to purify liquid effluents from his plant entering a nearby river. In doing so, he will, of course, raise his costs of production. Meanwhile, his competitors who lack environmental conscience will continue spewing unmitigated smoke into the atmosphere and pouring toxins into the river. Their lowered costs will enable them to undersell the conscientious producer, and eventually drive him out of business. In this way, the market rewards absence of environmental conscience.
Marx’s second point is that the exploitation which the capitalist system necessarily fosters will cause rebellion on the part of workers. They will rise up against their employers and overthrow the capitalist system.
Marx’s third point is that the workers will replace capitalism with socialism. Socialism will eventually evolve into communism. So what do those terms mean?
For Marx capitalism’s replacement at the hands of workers is socialism. This economic system is capitalism’s opposite on each of the three points indicated earlier. First of all, whereas capitalism espouses private ownership of the means of production, socialism advocates public ownership. According to this theory, the workers themselves take over the factories and administer them, not for the profit of the few, but for the benefit of workers and their families.
Secondly, whereas capitalism demands free and open markets, socialism mandates controlled markets. Since socialism has the interests of the working majority at center, its pure theory will not allow, for instance, production of luxury crops (such as roses or coffee) if that production deprives workers of the food they need for subsistence.
Thirdly, whereas capitalism idealizes unlimited income, socialism calls for redistribution of income – for instance, through a progressive income tax. For socialism, greed is definitely not good. So it might also limit income by establishing ceilings beyond which personal incomes are not permitted to rise. Taxes and surplus earnings are then used for the common good, for example to fund schools, clinics, food subsidies, affordable housing, rents and health care.
As for Communism, it is a “vision of the future” which some, though not by any means all, socialists entertain as history’s end point. That is, while all communists are socialists, not all socialists are communists. This is because some socialists (along with all capitalists, of course) consider the communist vision of the future as unrealistic and unattainable. That vision, overly idealistic or not, is of a future where there will be (1) abundance for all, (2) no classes, as a result of such plenty, and (3) no need for a state.
To begin with, the vision of virtually unlimited abundance marks communists such as Marx and Engels as convinced industrialists. They were highly impressed by the unprecedented output of the factory system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shirts, for example, that would take a skilled seamstress days to produce, were turned out in minutes, once an assembly line based on “division of labor” was set in motion. Soon, communists theorized, the world would be filled with consumer goods. And in a context of such abundance “yours” and “mine” would cease to have meaning. Neither would it make sense for some to hoard goods to themselves at the expense of others. The result would be the disappearance of classes. There would be no rich and no poor. Everyone would have more than enough of what they need.
With the disappearance of classes would come the gradual “withering away” of the state. This is because “the state,” by communist definition is simply armed administrator of the affairs of society’s dominant class. As Marx and Engels put it in their Manifesto, “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”
Thus the state’s job is to impose the will of a ruling class on others. Under capitalism, the state’s function is to oblige the working class to accept conditions profitable to the bourgeoisie (wealthy property owners). In other words, under capitalism, the state imposes the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”
Meanwhile, under socialism, the function of the state is to impose the will of the working class on the bourgeoisie. It enforces the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” By way of contrast, under communism, in the absence of classes (eliminated by a condition of abundance) there remains no group whose will needs to be imposed on others. The state’s function thus ceases. It gradually disappears.
[Next week: Conclusion of Critical Thinking’s first rule (Think Systemically): Mixed Economy and Fascism]