Economic Update: Marxism's Ongoing Relevance

[S11 E14] New

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After clearing away the Cold War debris that blocked discussion of Marxism's insights since 1945, we focus on Marxism's core contribution to (1) thinking about and (2) changing modern capitalist society. That contribution is class structure and class struggle. Marxism explores how class struggle exists in capitalism, how it influences all of social life, and how it changes over time. Marxism also envisions the end of class struggles as its social change goal now.

Transcript has been edited for clarity.

Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, debts, incomes — our own, our children's. I'm your host, Richard Wolff.

The program today responds to a request many of you have made and something that I've wanted to do for quite a while: to talk about the ongoing relevance and importance of Marxism. It's an important tradition, not only of thinking about the world but also of efforts to change society. And, as a theoretical tradition and as an accumulation of efforts and reflections on changing society, it's as relevant as it ever was — maybe more so. So I want to talk about that, and hopefully help us to make use of what that tradition has achieved.

But first, of course, we have to clear away the debris of the Cold War, which made all of that virtually impossible. For the last 75 years, as most of you know, we have basically been a society that demonizes Marxism, in a variety of ways. So we have to kind of clear the air so we can talk about this in a reasonable, rational way.

The first reason that Marxism was demonized was the hostility of the business community, and of the wealthy in America, who saw the New Deal — that's right, back in the 1930s — who saw the New Deal as some sort of secret effort to get rid of their power, their prestige, and their wealth, and to replace them with some kind of socialism. And they were horrified, and they went after what they thought was the theory of all of that, namely, Marxism. And so it became the big evil.

Then there was the second reason, that many of you are perhaps more familiar with, which is that Marxism was identified with the great enemy of the United States after 1945: the Soviet Union, the USSR. And it was seen to be some kind of tool that the USSR used to threaten the United States. And so it was demonized on that ground.

And then there was the caricature that what Marxism is, or was, or to this day seems to be, is some sort of rationalization for the government to come and take over everything in the economy, to suppress individual liberty. I was struck by the remarks of a mayor in a small city in Texas over the last couple of weeks who, when asked to provide city supports to the people suffering from the cold, from the loss of power, from the fact that they couldn't drink or use their water, he responded, I can't do that. I'm not going to give the city’s resources to help the people. That would be Marxism. Whoa. Really. Helping people is Marxism. I can't figure out whether that's a silly caricature or a secret way to make Marxism seem a lot more reasonable than those folks perhaps were used to.

And then there's the reality I know really well personally, which is the failure, the refusal, to teach what Marxism has been in any kind of rational way. Marxism, whether you like it or not, is not the issue here. Marxism is the most developed critique of the capitalist economic system that we live in that exists. It's built up over the last 150 years in virtually every country on earth. A set of thinkers, and written work, and writers, talking about the problems of capitalism — what they come from, what's to solve them, and so on. This is an enormous tradition of criticism that is useful to study. Not because you want to accept it in every detail — of course not; just like you don't study anything else that way — but to see what insights there are.

And here I am, and I'm going to give you my personal story of this, having gone to all the right universities here in the United States, all the elite schools. Here's what the reality was. I went as an undergraduate to Harvard. Then I went to Stanford for a master's degree. And I finished my education at Yale University with a PhD in economics. I spent a total of 10 years of my life in those three institutions, two semesters a year, that's 20 semesters studying history and economics, mostly economics. And here's the reality: For 19 of those 20 semesters, where we studied the capitalist economic system, we were not assigned one word of Marx. Not of Karl Marx, the originator, and not of any of the followers he's had in the last 150 years who've developed his way of thinking. 

In one of the 20 semesters I had a professor who did that, but he was unusual. His name was Paul Baran, at Stanford. And everybody who studied with him knew that he was unusual in the sense you couldn't get it anywhere else. So complete was the demonization of Marxism that even the intellectuals, the professors, the academics were afraid to go anywhere near it, to look at it, to read it, to think about it, even to work with students to understand what was and wasn't valuable within it. It was a level of Cold War craziness — because that's really what we're talking about — that means that Marxism was too frightening for people to even learn about.

Okay. Now let me explain why it is so important, and why it's such a tragedy that it was censored out of the conversation of our society. Here is the basic insight Karl Marx developed. He said that in capitalism, what we've heard about how it works to make technology progress, which it does, and what we've heard about how it produces wondrous amounts of goods and services, which it does, has to be put alongside of the fact that also in the core of capitalism is a fundamental conflict. That the people brought together — the employer on the one hand, and the employees on the other — are locked into a relationship that is fundamentally conflictual. That in the core of this system is a relentless, endless class struggle. And it pits the employer against the employee. This is not an argument that conflict is the only part of this relationship, but it is an argument that it is a core part of the relationship. 

And if you want to understand capitalism, if you want to make society better, you must pay attention to that core conflict because of its importance and of all of its consequences. If you want to make the system work better, you've got to deal with that. You cannot pretend it isn't there. Otherwise, you're like the person who pretends that there's no difference between how we treat male and female genders in this society, or no difference in how we treat well-off people and poor people, or white people and not-white people, etc. We've learned in our society, I hope, that these are important differences and conflicts that have to be come to terms with. Well, so is the one between the employer and the employee. And no one has studied those conflicts more than Marx and the tradition he initiates.

And you can see it, once you're aware. You can see because there are visible signs of class struggle all the time. As I'm speaking to you, 5,000 workers in Alabama are figuring out whether they're going to have a union at the Amazon warehouse because the employer has treated them awfully, and they're not happy about it, and they want to fight against it, and they may or they may  — that's class struggle, friends. Then there's the Supreme Court ruling in Britain a week ago which decided that the so-called gig workers — you know, the Uber, the Lyft driver — they are entitled to the same protections that workers who get a regular wage are. They can't be denied those protections by renaming them as a “gig” worker, as opposed to a regular employee. So they're going to have to get minimum wage, and they're going to have to get paid holidays — something we don't have in the United States, but the class struggle in England won that. Look, the class struggle is present in the bitterness of millions of Texans watching their senator gallivanting off into the sunset of Mexico and then telling lots of lies about it. 

Everywhere, workers know, employees know, the many ways in which the employer is trying to make more money, more profits, at their expense, and how they have to fight it and struggle against it. Then there are the invisible ways the class struggle works its way out. Think of yourself and the people you know who worry about losing their job, worry about losing their income, struggling, even if they can't put it into words, with the fact that they're caught up in a relationship where, whatever the work is that they do, there's somebody — an employer — in a position to take the job away, to take the income away, to make it impossible to make your home payment and keep your home, to keep your kids in the school. How did that power get vested in somebody who you barely know, and who may do that because he sells the business to somebody else, because he moves, because he doesn't like you — who knows. These are issues of class struggle that float up into your consciousness and shape your life.

Then it's on the other side too. You know, lots of employers, they kind of have to live with the class struggle too. They don't trust their workers, do they? That's why there's a camera in the bathroom. They want to monitor how long you're in there. They want to check what you're doing. They're worried that you're taking the stapler home at the end of the day. They're worried — you get the picture? 

The class struggle is everywhere. Marx is the theoretician who explains it. But to pretend that it isn't there, to pretend that we don't have to study it, and to pretend we have no use for the single most developed analysis of it? That's childish. It also influences everything in our society, that class struggle that Marx analyzed. 

For one thing, Marx hammers at the fact that the workplace in capitalism is a deeply anti-democratic, totalitarian place. A tiny minority of people — the owner, the board of directors in a corporation — have extraordinary power that is unaccountable. We don't elect those people to run the enterprise. The workers there, the employees, they don't have much power over that employer, do they? The employer hires and fires the employee, not the other way around. Where we live, we can vote, at least, for the people who rule over us — but not in the workplace. No rights of voting there, no democratic election there, not at all. You know who elects the board of directors? The shareholders. The big shareholders who own the bulk of the shares — they elect the board of directors. You, the workers, under the board of directors, have no votes at all. What an interesting arrangement. 

What does it teach people? It teaches people to accept that kind of rule — not just where they work, but, of course, when they go home too. It gets them used to it. It makes it seem necessary, or natural, or routine. It teaches non-democracy. You know what else it does? It makes people lose initiative. Why should you put yourself out when the company will make profits out of whatever it is you develop. You won't get them; you're just a worker. Have you wondered about the killing off of initiative that comes from this fact that you as a worker have no skin in the game, no real involvement in the fruits?

Well, folks, we've come to the end of the first part of today's show. Before we get to the second half, I want to remind you about our new book, The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us from Pandemics or Itself. It's available at democracyatwork.info/books. And I also want to thank our Patreon community for their ongoing and invaluable support. If you haven't already, please go to patreon.com/economicupdate to learn more about how you can get involved. Please stay with us; we will be right back to continue talking about the ongoing relevance of Marxism.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. We're devoting this program to an understanding of the ongoing relevance and importance of the Marxian tradition of thinking about society and of efforts to change society. And I was talking about the influences of the class struggle, that central contribution of Marx's work, the influences it has on the whole society, kind of a demonstration of why it's important to understand it. 

I want to get to an idea that is covered by the word “alienation.” Alienation in the sense of being separate from something, alienated from it. Marx has a wonderful discussion in his Das Kapital about all this. And I can summarize it — it's a dense summary; I apologize for that — but I can summarize it as follows: Something happens to a human being when you pour your brains, your muscles, into producing something; you're a worker. You make a beautiful object, you make a service that really helps people — whatever it is. And then something happens at the end of the day. It's five o'clock; you're done for the day. And then something happens which you may not think is important, but Marx says it’s crucial. Because of the relationship between the employer and the employee — that boss-worker relationship that is full of struggle — the capitalist takes from you what you produced and tells you, go home; you're done here. Go home, eat something, sleep, and come back tomorrow, do it all again. But what you've produced is taken from you. It's alienated from you. 

And someone else, who didn't work with you to produce it, will decide what happens to it — where it goes, to whom it goes, for what purpose it is used. That's none of your affair. The employer is going to take it, sell it, make money off of it, and you're not involved. This is for the adult something like the little lesson learned by the three-year-old in the sandbox when another child comes over and snatches your doll, or your truck, and takes it away. And you discover loss. And you're going to have to come to terms with it — maybe bursting out crying, maybe needing to be comforted by the adults in your life, and so on.

But when you're an adult, no one comforts you. It's the way the system works. And you become disconnected from your own product, from something you've poured yourself into. And that is painful. And that is psychologically stressful. And it's one of the ways that the capitalist system, Marx argues, affects your psychology through this struggle. Why aren't the workers, Marx asks, in charge of the disposition of what they have made? That's part of what work ought to be. That's part of what a human being needs to complete the work he or she has done, to be part of the decision of how to use it, how to make the community stronger by virtue of what you have added to it through your labor.  And breaking that down, making a small unaccountable minority — the dictators inside the enterprise, the employer — have them take your output, take your work, and do whatever they want with it is a loss to you. And that loss ramifies inside your personality. And Marx says all that in poetic language. 

And then there are the things that the class struggle does that are kind of obvious, Marx points out. Number one: If a tiny group of people — the employers, always a small minority of any capitalist society — if they're in a position to decide what happens with the work the workers, the employees, produce, they're going to go out there sell it and keep the bulk of the money for themselves. In other words, capitalism produces, reproduces, and worsens inequality. Wealth concentrated among the employers and the few at the top that they employ — you know, the CEO and folks like that — they get it all, don't they. We're living through a pandemic. Even a pandemic that threatens us all doesn't stop capitalism's relentless inequality production. That's why Jeffrey Bezos sees his fortune, during the pandemic, go from $130 billion to almost $200 billion, while 25 million people are unemployed. It blows your mind at the minute you think it. Marx was eloquent. If you don't want a system that is built on inequality, and worsens it even in a pandemic, you've got to deal with the (here we go) class struggle built into the way every store, every office, and every factory is organized in capitalism. 

He also points out that it's a system that breeds really destructive feelings and emotions. Workers are terribly worried that they're going to lose their job. It's easy to become competitive with other workers, to see them not as your comrades, your friends, your fellow workers helping to make your work add up to something, but rather to see them as people who may get the job that is taken from you, who may be the ones left on the job when there are layoffs — all of that. It means workers don't trust the employer because they see them trying to make more money by moving abroad to where wages are cheaper; bringing in machines that can substitute for workers; hiring children, women, immigrants, whom they can pay less. They see all that, and there's a bitterness. And the bitterness may turn against the employer, or it may turn against the scapegoat who gets blamed, even though the class structure, and the class struggle, are the problems these people face.

It means the employer, as I mentioned, becomes also very bitter towards the employees. If there's trouble in the enterprise, the employer blames the employees.They're not really in it — as if that should be surprising to anyone. Of course they're not in it; you've kept them out of it, by taking their product, by not making yourself accountable to them. Of course there's tension and bitterness. That's the point of Marx's directing us to think about it. The class struggle is part of our lives, shapes our society, conditions our own personal existence. We should understand it. We should examine it. We should be aware of it. 

The last thing Marx stresses about this class struggle, and the capitalist system in which it takes the form of the tensions between employers and employees, is to note that it changes. Class structures of any kind have always changed. You know, the class structure of slavery, the master and the slave, had very similar problems. Those are two classes. The master wasn't accountable to the slaves, and the slave was the property of the master. That was a class structure, and a class struggle, and it's gone because people blew it away, refused to continue, after long experience. And the same is true of feudalism. And the same will be true of capitalism. At least that's the reasonable expectation Marx wants to set before us.

Another implication of Marx's analysis — one that he didn't have the time to work out because he died at a relatively young age — was the fact that if the state takes over — which in some societies it has, partly or completely — that may not change all that much. If the state continues to organize enterprises and workplaces in the form of a tiny group of people making all the decisions sitting at the top — the employer — and a mass of people who are in the employee position, it will not matter all that much that it's a state enterprise, as opposed to a private one, because it hasn't gotten away from the contradiction, the conflict, the struggle, the class struggle — because it hasn't done away with the class difference, with the class structure of production. Moving from a private to a state enterprise without changing that isn't what Marx had in mind. 

And here Marx becomes a philosopher again, which is how he started as a young man. Everything he says suggests its opposite. The history of the human race when it went through its slavery phase, its feudalism phase, and now its capitalism phase, always with a class structure and class struggle, a small group (masters, feudal lords, employers in capitalism) and a large group (slaves, serfs, employees) — each of those gives people the idea that things could be other than they are. And you know what the “other” is? A society whose workplaces are not divided between a small group who run the show and a mass of people who are alienated from running the show. Your being stuck in that position is what gives you the imaginary alternative. 

Suppose, Marx says, that we could have in our minds the alternative that the workplace, the enterprise, is a democratic community — not divided between a minority on top and a majority underneath. And we have a name for that, don't we. And you know it from this program. It's a worker cooperative. It's a situation where with one person/one vote, we all decide together, democratically, what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the output. We are no longer alienated because it's ours, and we run it, and we have the vested interest. And we will have initiative and be inventive, because we will be the beneficiaries — all of us — of whatever each of us contributes. 

So the irony is, class-divided societies develop the vision of their own negation, Hegel would say. That is, they understand that one could go beyond the trap they’re in. It's like understanding that you could have a different relationship than the one you're in. The very difficulties of the one you're in give you insights into what you would rather be in, what alternative relationships might look like. And you know when you understand this, you realize that what Marx is about has very little to do with the government. It's not about the government coming in and doing this or doing that. It's not about the government taking over. It's not about taking away your liberty. It has nothing to do with those things. Those are smears, caricatures, designed to turn people away, to demonize Marxism so it's not available to learn from. 

Marx's insights about the class differences in society, the class struggles that shape our society — they're powerful. They're useful. Are they all 100 percent right? Of course not. Do we have to develop, and change, and adjust them to our circumstances? Yes, of course. This isn't a religion. This isn't a dogma. Some people have made it that, like some people have done that with every other set of ideas ever brought forward, but we don't have to. But to refuse to engage it, the way in my education here was required — that's self-destructive. Childish blindness doesn't befit real education, or a society at comfort with itself.

Marxism is worth understanding because it'll teach you, as it has taught me, a great deal about the world I live in. And if this program is of use to you, a good part of the credit goes to what I've learned from the Marxist tradition.

Thank you very much for joining me today. This is Richard Wolff from Economic Update, and I look forward to talking with you again next week.


Transcript by Marilou Baughman
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Showing 4 comments

  • Suslein Persent
    commented 2022-02-16 12:24:23 -0500
    I believe that Marxism should be present, one should not be tied to just increasing profits. Marxism is like getting around downloading a video, for example, by recording it with a program (e.g. https://www.movavi.com/screen-recorder/ ). Very useful information.
  • Pasqual DiGesu
    commented 2021-04-16 07:15:11 -0400
    Absolute power corrupts absolutely,,,, and if we are now all under the illusion of sharing it??? Wall St. financial powers and banksters etc. and their legislative control are not the only entities that are “too big too fail”, Fed and State Govt. civil service departments and agencies have built up their own empires, (defense, education, legislators lawmaking system for energy, medicine, family courts, taxes, property, etc,,, and those who justify not doing their job by rewriting their own working protocol to avoid costs for those they protect like the EPA etc. where the Flint MI. problem is now evident in multiple states and counties across the country? (and just what controls the fed reserve and or the supreme court, is it economic physics and or the constitution?) This is not in the scope of economic updates subject matter, but it is part of the working picture and working problem.
  • carole oleniuk
    commented 2021-04-13 12:31:42 -0400
    One of the things about Democracy at Work that makes so much sense to me is that it puts the focus on the workplace rather than the government. Attempting to reform, fix, correct, adjust the deep corruption in the American political system assumes that it is possible. Private capitalism and state capitalism have the same relationship to employees, they are the boss. The “new capitalistic paradigm” in which the state keeps private capital alive when it is failing is exactly why attempting to reform the state makes no sense. It cannot be separated from the capitalist class it serves. A new paradigm of enterprises, run by those who work in them, is now necessary precisely because the old is so corrupt. The focus shifts, from the dying and starting to smell capitalist class and their handmaidens in the state, to the workers who create whatever real wealth we have on this earth. Why not just eliminate the parasitic class, they serve no useful purpose.
  • Sonny Wiehe
    commented 2021-04-12 20:35:23 -0400
    The professor is correct in urging everyone to recognize and accept the inherent social struggle between the employer and employee in a capitalistic enterprise. But he has talked redundantly about this issue at ad nauseum. We get it, Richard; and it’s natural. Does it create problems. Sure it does. But there are bigger problems on our plate.

    The biggest problem (IMO) is capitalistic enterprise masquerading as government. All the ills the professor talks about attributing to private capital enterprise (fear of losing job, fear of losing pension, fear of losing health care, risk of taking a stapler home, fear of taking too long of a bathroom break, etc) happen in government offices too…and probably worse. Problem is, the issues are getting painted over more and more by the printing of fiat currency of which private enterprise does not have the same opportunity (and more precisely, the right) to do. This is called a financial “edge” in business terminology. And it is HUGE. This is why the elite oligarchs have largely forgotten about having to make a profit in main street private enterprise when they can more profitability “team up”— read P3 relationships— with elected officials (most government administrators are not elected and are usually installed for life— actually very difficult to get rid of even if they are corrupt) and assure themselves of a steady stream of profitable fiat currency income by making sure retiring elected officials that are already bought with newly groomed replacements via massive amounts of campaign contributions (or now, all out election fraud) and who are duly supported by retiring incumbents to “seal the deal” of authenticity. its a grand ponzi scheme where building new infrastructure to separate the wealth classes (paid express lanes) is more important than maintaining existing infrastructure. More profit building + operating). This is why “government” owns more and more transportation systems, owns more and more government subsidized housing, builds more schools and infrastructure. Government is simply now a proxy capital owner for global capitalist elites. The edge is that the profit is endless as long as any financial hiccup (like internet bubble, like the mortgage crisis, like the covid19 pandemic, etc.) is pasted over (read: bailed out!) with the endless printing of fiat currency in the form of public debt. That’s why we are at $28T and counting folks. Only in a span of 40 years! Unless there is a demand by the people (as a republic is responsible to do) for a federal balanced budget amendment, this will only get worse. This is also why government officials balk at, laugh, and ridicule such an idea. Why? Because they know it would be the silver dagger in their grandest ponzi scheme ever.

    This paradigm of private capital buying out government on endless streams of fiat currency in the form of public debt is what Richard should expound upon rather than repeating the tired diatribes of Marxism that, while true, have largely become irrelevant with this new capitalistic paradigm. This is fascism turned on its head like we’ve never seen before. Forget about the New Deal, its time to get real, Richard.

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