In this paper I will examine how Karl Marx views capitalism and, more specifically, the criticisms he has regarding capitalism. In the first part of the paper I will reconstruct and explain the philosopher’s argument. In the second part of the paper I will offer my critical evaluation where I will demonstrate how these critiques are still appropriate in today’s society by providing examples of how capitalism is affecting the lives of American workers even today. However, I will first explain the definition and structure of capitalism.
Capitalism is an economic system that is most common in the United States and much of Western Europe today.
It is represented by privatization of companies for production of goods or services for a profit, competitive markets, and wage labor (“Capitalism”). These individual skills were initially developed from skills that grew out of the economic time period known as feudalism and has evolved into individuals who possess certain skills that can demand payment.
Although this may seem like it would be an ideal situation for workers and provide a platform to provide a service in return for payment of some sort, it soon became evident that there were people who would use this new system of economics to their advantage.
Instead of doing the work themselves, they would find skilled workers to provide the service or product under the umbrella of their organization to which they would market and sell the goods for profit. The business owner would make a profit and, in turn, pay the worker a portion for his services provided. Unfortunately, there were others who were unable to make the system work for them in such an advantageous manner. Karl Marx had two basic criticisms of capitalism – especially in his lifetime of the beginning of the industrial revolution and the formation of factories.
His first was the thought that the worker suffered from alienation on several different levels. As a capitalistic society succeeds by gaining profit for the companies and business owners, the overall cost of goods needed to live also increases. If the wages earned by workers went up consistently with the profits of society and, thus, the increase in the cost of living, all would be good and balanced. However, that is not the case in most circumstances, in fact, as Marx points out, “the worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more goods he creates” (Johnson 261).
In other words, as the production increases the cost to produce is lowered. The business owner sees those profits in the gross profit obtained by the sale of goods; however, the worker is generally not compensated in a fair and equitable manner. This turns a skill which may or may not have been a passion at one time into something that the worker is forced to do whether they desire to do so or not. Even if a worker enjoyed his occupation, chances are, he or she is being forced to comply with guidelines or standards set by someone else.
As a worker you are still not truly free to produce your work according to your standards so you are, in essence, alienating yourself from the product of your work. According to Marx, capitalism has also produced an alienation from nature. He states that the capitalistic society conceals this alienation because it does not examine the direct relationship between the worker and production (Johnson 263). Essentially, the labor of the worker may produce wonderful and beautiful things for the wealthy individuals but oftentimes the working class population may never get to experience the beauty for themselves.
Furthermore, the workers identity is often lost within their job and they do not have the means to express their individuality. This is identified by Marx as being alienated from yourself and from your labor. Most people do not proclaim their uniqueness in ways that focus around their occupation. Even in a highly sought after job you may, for a time, feel as if that encompasses who you truly are, but it is only a small part of your being – your essence. This also ties in to another alienation theme of Marx which is the alienation from your species as a human being.
According to Marx, “the worker feels himself to be freely active only in his animal function – eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most also in his dwelling and in personal adornment – while in his human functions he is reduced to animal” (Johnson 264). In other words, as workers we are often free only when we are allowed to do what we want to do instead of what is demanded and required of us at our jobs. When this happens, we are often reduced to a more animalistic approach to fulfilling our needs.
Finally, Marx contends that in a apitalistic society, the worker is alienated from others. Because there is so much competition in capitalism – which is the driving force for production and profits – it causes a hostile environment among workers. Many are competing for the same position or the same customer or account. This competition causes a friction within the frame of society that pits individual against individual which is what leads us into the next matter of contention with Marx in his views of capitalism which is exploitation.
He claims that “private property has made us so stupid and partial that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when it is directly eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc. , in short, utilized in some way; although private property itself only conceives these various forms of possession as means of life, and the life for which they serve as means is the life of private property – labor and creation of capital” (Johnson 266). People have become so materialistic in our capitalistic society that they are driven to all means by which to obtain their measures of status.
Because of this, the workers are driven to give into demands made by their employers in order to make the wages necessary to maintain their standard of living. Since the workers are plentiful, the products are also plentiful, which discussed earlier creates a larger bottom line for the profit of the company or business owner. However, even though the profits are increased for the business owners of the capitalistic society, the wages are often not as high as the profit. Thus, the value of the product is high while keeping the value of the worker low.
This is a classic example of exploitation. I think that the criticisms offered by Marx are still applicable in today’s society in the United States. I think that the worker is indeed alienated from his true identity as an individual. Before the onset of industrialized production there was a certain pride associated with one’s occupation; whether that was as a craftsman in wood, as a blacksmith, tailor, or bricklayer. No matter your profession, you were able to express your individuality and impart your character into the product of your work.
Sadly, this is not the case with the workers of today. They are often subject to limitations and expectations that hinder their creative ability and they are forced to produce that are a poor representation of their ability or personality. Most people are forced into positions they don’t even want to be in professionally because they need to make a certain amount of money to pay for their wants and needs. This creates a frustration and dissatisfaction that reaches far beyond the walls of the factory or office.
It is no wonder that most workers today dread Monday mornings and count the days until five o’clock Friday afternoon. Again and again, the energy level increases as the weekend approaches. There is a common sentiment that states everybody is simply working for the weekend. This is because workers are dissatisfied with their jobs and feel undervalued and taken advantage of in many circumstances. Once the workday ends, the freedom begins for the worker. This is often why the bars have a “happy hour” as this is where the worker can forget the troubles of the day and throw back a drink or two and finally relax.
The economic conditions of living in an industrialized society has turned the ordinary worker into a materialistic consumer that generally far outreaches his or her ability to afford to keep up with the Jones’. Because many feel the pressure of this forced societal expectations to possess certain items, live in a certain neighborhood, d rive the right car all while wearing the right clothes and accessories we as workers in the United States have been put in the unfortunate and unbalanced position of much more want than means by which to provide it.
As long as that continues, we are stuck in a cycle of never ending wants that never truly satisfy because they are not meeting what is truly needed in our lives. Marx claims that “the human being had to be reduced to this absolute poverty in order to be able to give birth to all his inner wealth” (Johnson 268). In a capitalistic society it is encouraged, and even necessary, to consume what is being produced in order for capitalism to continue to grow.
Today’s worker can do this in moderation, without putting themselves or their families in such a position to further add to the frustration of meeting expectations and demands at a workplace that is unfulfilling to their existence. Furthermore, I think that labor unions were formed in the early 1900’s in order to protect workers from exploitation of greedy business owners. At the turn of the century, many workers were expected to work long hours almost every day of the week.
There were unsafe working environments s well as high quotas being placed on workers from employers with minimal compensation to the workers. All of this was so the profits could rise as production was increased. There seemed no reason to pay more in wages by adding workers or in higher salaries for the existing employees when the business owners could simply demand more from their current workforce. Also, working conditions were often unsafe while trying to maximize workspace with the maximum number of workers without actually increasing the area being used.
Because of labor unions working conditions have improved greatly for the worker in America; there are 40 hour work weeks with compensation for additional hours worked; guidelines have been implemented to make for safer working conditions; and there is more room for negotiation for fair wages without fear of retaliation by employers. Although labor unions are still in existence today, they have much less impact than they had in the past.
Politicians are close bedfellows with the corporate executives across our nation and policies are ever changing to benefit the corporation and business owners while causing the worker to suffer the consequences. Even though there have been great improvements in regard to the criticisms of alienation and exploitation that Marx had against capitalism, I believe they still exist. Marx may have not been of this century but I feel his observations are still valid in today’s world.