The often misunderstood philosophies of Karl Marx are in many respects consigned to the symbolic dustbin of 19th and 20th century history, and a number of failed governments whose practices bore little resemblance to the utopian vision of a unified workers’ state detailed in Marx’s prolific writing. A central theme of Marx’s political and social philosophies was that capitalism deprives human beings of a vital and organic sense of connection to their labor to the extent that it depersonalizes them, converting them to nameless machines. The extent to which production is impersonalized by the capitalist forces which ultimately control it bedeviled Marx in that he understood this as oppression in the form of class construction. In this respect capitalism is a failed application because it requires a permanent underclass to function through design (Hudis 63). The recognition of the collective humanity of the workers’, in terms of fair treatment and acceptable wages is anathema to management aims.
To the extent that capitalism is externally competitive the suppression of workers becomes an integral part of the design, as well as the most prominent flaw in capitalist theory and practice. The most valuable component in the capitalist dictate are the workers, and yet they are marginalized behind the overarching profit motive. Marx’s essential philosophy turns on recognition of labor’s inherent humanity and rights, an acknowledgement that would foment a workers’ state in which production is communal and not oppositionally-dualistic. Far from a harmonious arrangement Marx describes this system is internally unbalanced to the degree that exploitation of labor shifts benefits to management. Labor is consciously downgraded to the status of an impersonal production arm, and in doing this any sense of humanity is lost. Capitalist imperative strives to reduce the worker to dependence, while simultaneously cultivating a class system that has its antecedents in oppression and exploitation. Marx explains that this system is undermined by its own injustice, and therefore destined to foment worker rebellion and ultimately overthrow of the system itself (Sullivan 43). In this particular respect capitalist theory is self-negating to the degree that it fails to recognize the behavioral flaws in its approach to labor relations. Marx viewed capitalism as both inherently myopic and self-destructive.
Certainly to a significant extent Marx predicted the series of economic crisis that have plagued the 20th century, up to an including the current economic calamity affecting the United States and most European nations. The power and general aims of monopolies express little interest in a community of workers in collaboration with management authorities, rather the forces that animate them are shareholder demands and the single obsession with unrivaled profits. The systematic marginalization of labor that has characterized the economic development of western nations before the rise of unionization has succeeded in reasserting management dictates to an overshadowing position. Marx understood the prescient dimensions of a future in which the entrenchment and governance of labor exploitation could only guarantee discontent and eventual rebellion. For these reasons Marx viewed capitalism as a morally bankrupt economic philosophy with underlying social abridgements (Balibar 3). The alternative was production where the workers were invested in the system, evenly balanced by a significant share of control by labor. Marx posited a utopian vision of the workers’ collective and a radical alternative to capitalism in which each individual worker held a stake in the means of production, and did not merely rent themselves as cheap or disposable labor.
Marx argued that capitalism and production function exclusively as an expression of domination and subjugation of labor. To this end he invoked a visage for labor, a common face that humanizes and softens the otherwise deliberate disposition of labor as undifferentiated cattle, herded and organized to serve the expressed interests of an ownership class. In Marxian terminology this imbalance was called ‘crisis theory’, the myopic establishment of a system of production whose basic architecture was completely one-sided and constructed to foment unintended chaos. Blinded by greed and a theology of domination capitalist production was crippled by its own short-sighted designs and calculations (Marx 53). In this form of oppositional dualism there are also tenuous points of contact between the Marxian remedies for the cancer of capitalist theory and practice and the Kantian principle of ‘sensus communis’ in which premature subjective experience is in a certain sense applied as an absolute. Appellations of Kant’s theory of human community cast in altogether subjective terminologies recall values of common sense” or communal well-being.
Empirically Kant’s ‘sensus communis’ is not predisposed to the necessity of specific improvement in human conditions, particularly in the areas of economic and political manipulation. Translated as the subjective experience of the collective the digressive meaning intended cited values of freedom won through a conscious momentum (Kleist 3). In different philosophical terms both Kant and Marx endeavored to express communal requirements for freedom that was transcendent and not specifically political. In an instance of juxtaposed logic Kant suggests that sensus communis is both subjective and in a greater sense universal. Both Marx and Kant identify lag-factors in human consciousness that are regressive, and at the same time they strive toward a transcendence that is often contradicted in human group behavior. Marx identifies the oppressor as man himself, inexorably positioned between desire and freedom.
Kant theorized a break with prejudice and superstition that envisioned a transcendent class of men in a similar link with Marx, although Marxian anti-capitalist philosophy was positioned in oppositional terms, the degree of capitalist domination of labor infused the Marxian dogma of labor transcendence and self-determination. Kant’s sensus communis posits are break between learned behavior and thinking, asking the adherent to construct a phase of self-reflection that strives to identify, and not indemnify (Kleist 55). Universalist philosophizing was the medium through which both self-reflection and self-transcendence occurred, gaining the objective image of oneself suggests self knowledge, even detachment. Marxian opposition to capitalist applications did not demand that the adherent transfer his own subjective position to understand the position of those he opposed, in contrast Kantian sensus communis logicus suggests subjective universalism, the presumption that only by making the necessary transfer to the other could one hope to gain freedom of consciousness and choice.
Kant maintains the primary focus on sense, or what can be sensed, the deliberation of spirit rather than intellect as the means to gain the perspective of the overseer, the transcendence that permits change. Both Marx and Kant were exemplars of consciousness, however in often radically different and even oppositional terms. The Utopian workers’ state was the ideal that conscious elevation aspired to, the power of the collective spirit to raise the otherwise faceless tools of industry into a fearful power that sought the liberation and grandeur of self-realization. In this respect there is a common link to Kant’s sensus communis, or sensus aetheticus, to the extent that both philosophies idealize positive empowerment and subsequent transformation. Marx’s transformation was the conquest of labor over the exploitation and spiritual corruption of the capitalist ethos, Kant’s transformation was the ideal of universality and the common aspect of all men as one overarching community.
Marx saw historical process as the function of materialism, the quest to organize and satisfy the immediate demands of life. To this extent historical materialism presupposed capitalist domination and the crisis of labor theory. Although Marxian liberation theory digressed from Kantian spiritual consciousness, in certain respects these two perspectives found points of brief commonality. Marx probed the theory of labor value, the arbitrary set of laws that set the value of labor in terms of commodity valuations. The commodity has a value only in its relation to the buyer and seller, just as labor is defined in similar linearity. However commodities are arrangements and structures of commerce and labor are men with minds and emotions who satisfy the demands placed upon them by external authorities. In this particular respect the dialectics of Marx and Kant are entirely divorced from one another (Kleist 27). Kant was asserting a universality and Marx an oppositional collective.
Where Kant perceived the spiritual aesthetics of universality, Marx labored in the material world of commercial applications and laws. Marx criticized the fetishistic impulses of capitalism to create a mystique of separation in which one side must construct a definitive philosophy that divides the other. Where these divisions permitted acceptance the establishment of a non-viable political construct had taken place. Only by witnessing and dwelling upon the ultimate irony of this construct could those who consign themselves to it escape. Commodities and money were the obstacles that obscured the collective, the catalysts that kept the system running into monotony. Commodity fetishism predisposed both sides to a norm that over time took on the characteristics of natural laws, rather than a system devised consciously by some men for great advantages drawn from the many (Beaudreau 82). The roots of this form of labor exploitation have their antecedents in monarchical systems, classic two-tiered societies constructed to meet the needs of the ruling elites.
The economic instability and chaos that Marx associated with capitalism as a failed system is emerging today to a degree not seen since the 1930’s in the United States, and many parts of Europe. Marx endeavored to qualify the dominant means of production in terms of the otherwise immutable forces at work, ideas of property and capital invested into a system whose interior design forbade amelioration to the degree that labor value set the terms of profit. Labor merely became a calculation for management in which the essential human residence was forced into another part of the capitalist machine. Labor was a tool, not an animated assemblage of human beings with interior dimension and families, with histories and complexities, but a fitted piece of the design applied in its place, essentially dehumanized by condition. This was the symbolic division of class that Marxian theory sought to deconstruct (Hudis 7). Long before Communism acquired a pejorative association and an expressed political consciousness it was a tribal construct, and system of communal effort and shared yields. Separating Communism for the political landscape of the 20th century and understanding the actual meaning entails a radical understanding of the word and the exercise it entails.
In the pre-industrial world community was understood as a collective, a balance of labor and rewards, evenly distributed among the participants. In early gatherer societies the significance of community determined the productive essence of the tribe, and also its longevity in a world where labor was organized along more democratic lines. At no level of this communal design did a superior class emerge that foisted authority over the whole. Yet another consideration was the relative intimacy with which individual contributed, each understanding the value of their labor as a viable part of something material and self-reinforcing. This accumulated sense of personal asset was one of the first casualties of the drift toward industrial capitalism, and the use of labor not for the survival of the community, but rather the enrichment of a minority. Here was the essential schism in the Kantian sennsis communis, and Marxian communist philosophy, an authoritarian regression and subsequent division of labor and management in classic dualistic psychology. The tribal system had muted components of division, but these were basically structural in operation, not divisive in the way that capitalism and labor were inharmonious. Industrialization introduced technology, an impersonal system of production in which asset management and yields supersede the considerations of human beings as contributors in a communal sense (Sullivan 28). Capitalist theory presupposed a truncation of labor to a set of equations out of which were drawn profits. Such an impersonal system must by design discourage empathy or community in a reflective tribal sense or association.
Aristotle expounded on the essential definitions of friendship in a philosophy that bore similarities to both Marx’s mode of production theory, and Kantian sennsis communis insomuch as the link between human labor—object and objective—is inexorably reinforced through a quality of democratization or common aim. Where this value is either missing or consciously omitted the labor is deprived of an elemental component, and merely becomes a form of exploitation. Aristotle defined three main categories of friendship: friends must enjoy one another’s company, they must secure are use for one another, and they must subscribe to a common good (Stern-Gillet 17). The possibility of Aristotle’s idea of friendship conflated with a democratic mode of production has credible antecedents in tribal community, and this essential communal spirit admits both Kantian and Marxian production theory on different levels. Capitalist production stands in stark contrast to classic communist theory of a labor collective that is not a new political idea or even a form of political rebellion so much as an outdated approach to community labor relations that was not premised upon bi-polarity. Community is a benign word with a range of intimate associations.
Friendship based on utility was Aristotle’s architecture for a cooperative labor pool. Similar in a spiritual sense with both Kant’s sennis communis and Marxian liberation, or more accurately return. The possibility of different scales of production and demands for labor also impact the disposition of both community and an abiding spirit of friendship or harmonious collective. In isolated or limited scales of activity democratization of labor is a general function of community. Where these scales are enlarged and magnified by the demands of industry the tribal elements are replaced by more overt financial imperatives which depersonalize labor and production. The enjoined sense of community discourages exploitation or profit motive as irrelevant to the daily function of the system. The dominant psychology changes under industrialization, calling for a separation and subsequent class structure that reinforces the basic aims of the management class (Stern-Gillet 14). On a tribal or communal level production is self-sustaining, the rewards are both palpable and personal. Capitalism obliterates the sense of the personal connection to the labor and ascribes it to a nameless, faceless entity.
Therefore far from a revolutionary principle Marx inadvertently reinvented the tribal construct in an evolving stage of industry. The more advanced these forms of mechanization became, alternately the more antiquated are the communes and collectives envisioned as the ideal mode of production, one that manages to provide the basic needs and leave the essential humanity of men intact. Marx critiqued capitalism as an impersonal device that stripped men of their humanity and turned them into faceless cogs in a machine governed by rich men. To the degree that wage labor and production became the norm men consigned themselves to a form of impersonal labor and meager returns (Marx 9). Where industry sacrificed the critical thread of humanity that enjoined labor with values and content that could not be harnessed by capitalism the ultimate stage for a rivalry was put in place.
Marx’s philosophy of humane production was perhaps naïve in an emerging age of factories and industry where human value was not self-defined but rather arbitrated. Classes develop out of conditions, and not necessarily the opposite. Class division suggests a range of often conflicted responses to a given environment or idea. In the organizational dynamics that accompanied industrialization and modes of mass-production the intimacy of commune could not hope to survive for obvious reasoning. The centers of commerce and labor contribution are radically altered. The sense of community is replaced by basic questions of individual survival and men are correspondingly drawn into a competitive rather than cooperative demeanor, presided over by a corporate ethos. Marx believed that it was possible to join the exercise of mass-production with humane community and spiritual satisfaction as derived from earlier communities (Balibar 96). Marx was asking whether it was possible to humanize capitalism to the degree that it incorporates essential community values?
However Marx was also remarkably prescient in his philosophical condemnation of capitalism as deeply flawed. Were he alive to witness the culmination of his dire warnings in The Communist Manifesto, it is likely that he would continue to extol the idea of community-based production as an alternative to the suffocating alignments of corporate capitalism and the gradual erosion of community attachments and the values that once informed labor collectives. Even under conditions of historical oppression labor collectives joined in a spirit of community learned how to rely on one another and to challenge the conditions imposed upon them (Marx 8). The violence and chaos of the union movements in America also reinforced Marx’s dialectic on the perils of capitalism and the impractical nature of a system that so harshly marginalized men as crude functionaries within a larger machine whose essential design was to shift the benefits of mass labor to a minority ownership class.
The alternative to capitalist mass-production that Marx envisioned has never been adequately applied, certainly not in the form intended by Marx. Considering the impact that Marx had on 20th century political and social reforms, ideas of community and assets, relationship psychology between opposing values, the ultimate test of his philosophies are the exceptional degree to which his critique of capitalism proved relevant and compelling some one-hundred thirty years after his death. Indeed capitalism has created a divided society, as well as one in which the supreme value of money obscures all other values (Sullivan 45). It is logical to reflect now upon the possibilities of the Marxian production model, and how it might have moderated the excesses and systemic abuses of a commercial culture saturated in greed as an overarching philosophy. Marx anticipated the crisis of capitalist theory long before the scandals of the banking and investment sectors of Wall Street, or the pivotal collusions between Washington and the private sector.
Where the burgeoning capitalism of the 19th century formed the basis of Marx’s eloquent critique, the domino-effect of late 20th century corporate capitalism vindicated his radical ideas of a labor value that theoretically supplanted capitalist motives by sheer force of humanity. Human beings cannot resign themselves to the whims and indignities of a financial elite whose presiding vision is to marginalize them in name of profits. The enduring legacy of Marxian class theory is the relative accuracy with which he assessed a system of production that was designed to establish an immutable two-tiered class structure. Far from the allowance of any natural law or set of universal imperatives this construct was flawed in its presumption of inequality, and the conclusion that men would resigned themselves to the status of tools for industry. Marx’s impact on the politics of class and the organization of mass-production remains a cornerstone of both insight and ominous predictors.
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Gillet, Suzanne. Aristotle's philosophy of friendship. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Print.
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Sullivan, Stefan. Marx for a post-communist era on poverty, corruption, and banality. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.