Marx's Critique of Capitalism

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by Tom Chance

Throughout his work, Marx's primary concern was the intellectual destruction of capitalism. Despite his belief in a progressive history, and in the inevitable downfall of capitalism, Marx thought that in destroying capitalism's intellectual support he could hasten its real demise and usher in a socialist era. Many of his works can be seen as reactions to the growing status of the relatively new field of political economy, pioneered by figures like Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus, whose increasingly laissez-faire theories promoted an extension of exactly the features of capitalism that Marx thought were most defective. Hence his critique ranges from attacks on the complacent liberal bases of capitalism to complex analyses of the economics of the day and of leading theorists.

Though he certainly didn't tackle these themes in any particular chronological order, I will tackle them thematically and logically, from the liberal foundations, through his theories of alienation, commodification, fetishism, exploitation and immiseration, ending with his empirical economics. In doing this I hope to show that many aspects of his critique of capitalism were extremely successful, and still pose difficult challenges to the economic and political orthodoxy in the western tradition today, but that he also made many false or contradictory statements, and finally that he lacked a viable positive alternative and a "road map" of how we might get their from capitalism.

The most fundamental assumption of Marx's moral system is a kind of moral materialism; he asserts that "the nature of individuals ... depends on the material conditions determining their production" (Marx, 2001c : 176) He thus frames any consideration of individuals in terms of their economic and productive circumstances, a move not foreign to many of his critics, but one that would conflict with many of the more idealistic notions entertained by many liberals. In his early writings, Marx deliberately distanced himself from Hegel's idealism, which saw the material world as the phenomenal manifestation of Ideas; "According to Hegel... it is not their own life process that unites them to the state, it is the life-process of the idea that has distinguished them from itself" (Marx, 2001a : 33).

Marx's next move, based upon his materialism, was to describe the nature of the relationship between an individual and society. No doubt reacting to the common liberal belief that all individuals enter freely into all economic arrangements by means of a (hopefully mutually beneficial) contract, Marx commented that "men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production" (Marx, 2001b : 425); whilst liberals like Locke focus on what ought to be the case in an ideal society, Marx made an obvious observation of 19th century European society, and saw something that is true of today also, that it is not our choice to work - work is a matter of survival - and so to an extent it is a matter of necessity rather than freedom of will that we enter into economic contracts. In fact, one could say that it is only the comparatively wealthy that have any choice in the matter, whilst the poorer members of society must take what work they can get. So Marx saw that, if we are determined by our mode of production, then our nature is determined by society, or by those who guide it, not by our own volition.

One could object that it is always our choice to work, and that we could simply chose to live the life of a beggar, or try to live off the land in another less densely populated land, or, in contemporary developed countries, to live off the welfare system. But a Marxist would claim that in not working, such a person isn't contributing to any society and is dehumanising themselves, giving no materialist basis for their nature and no right to consider himself a member of the society that is supporting him. In other...
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