What Marxism explains

Twitter: @Benji_Hillier
Email: ben@redflag.org.au
More articles by Ben Hillier

“All things obey money”, Solomon wryly quips in Ecclesiastes. Old wisdom seems obviously true. Our capacity to participate in society depends on our ability to purchase things. We are therefore in constant need of a supply of cash or credit, even if only a relatively modest amount. The lack of it is a condition of poverty, but it is also the most corrupting of influences. Politicians are bought off by it, businessmen lack any moral code not bound to it and the environment suffers because it is not as important as it. Wars seemingly are launched so someone can make more of it.

The power of money is everywhere expressed by the goods purchased with it. People stop and take notice of the fine suit, the Ferrari or the jewellery. All are markers of their owners’ command of currency. More than this, products become expressions of the self. Open the latest copy of Allure and you’ll be told, “Short hair is all about attitude and confidence.” Today you have to pay the hairdresser to have your inner outlook materialised in a form consumable for someone else’s gaze.

Money’s influence is ubiquitous; no one escapes it. The fact that the needs of humanity and the planet seem always to come second to the chase for cash is one of great stains on capitalist society. Money is little more than a claim on the products of labour. How then do some people come to control so many claims? And why do those claims exercise such power over us?

Marxists argue that if we want to answer these questions, we have to start by looking at the conditions of labour itself.

Labour and life

“Every child knows”, wrote Karl Marx to one of his contemporaries, “that a country which ceased to work, I will not say for a year but for a few months, would die”. It is the most simple of points, which is why it bears repeating. Before a human being can do anything, we have to clothe ourselves, eat, drink and sleep.

In doing so, our immediate experiences are often individual. But when we interrogate them, it turns out that we are never properly alone. Each moment is animated by, literally, millions of workers. We are accustomed not to think about or notice them. Yet they never leave us.

For example, every time a mobile phone is answered, the labour of countless workers is brought to life – programmers in the US, technicians in China, truck drivers and pilots on multiple continents, oil riggers in the Middle East, mechanics, miners, electricians, factory hands, retail workers, power station operators. Seemingly endless arrays of workers from around the globe have contributed to the call, through either their role in the production of the phone or their maintenance of the telecommunications and power systems.

It is humbling to stop for a few moments, pick any item lying within a few metres and attempt to write down every connection, every human act of labour that brought it into existence. Even a simple belt buckle will take us on a journey exposing the rich tapestry of global labour.

We can bring to life in our imagination the real labouring connections of millions of workers because their collective efforts produce our world. This tapestry gets us only so far, however. Every society labours, but societies differ considerably through the centuries. The production and consumption of things always involve an arrangement of social relationships – a specific way of life. So what is the capitalist way of life?


The first thing of note about capitalism is that it is a class society. Consider the following testimony about a relationship between two people: “He tells me what to wear. He tells me when to come to his place. When I get there he tells me what to do. He tells me when I can stop. He tells me when I can eat. If I need to go to the toilet, I have to ask permission. He tells me not to argue with him – and to smile. If I refuse to do what he asks, he threatens that he’ll make it so that I can’t pay my rent or bills.”

If we had a friend relate something similar to us, we’d be disgusted. We’d likely try to end it. And yet the majority of those people toiling away to produce the things the world needs do so while in this relationship, although the exact conditions vary from one to the next. Those who don’t have such an association search one out. It is the relationship between a worker and a boss (capitalist). Capitalism is founded on this, the ugliest of bonds.

The relationship is not natural. It is a product of the unequal distribution of society’s resources. Oxfam’s January briefing paper, “Working for the few”, estimates that the richest 85 people own more than the combined wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population. In Australia, widely regarded as one of the most “egalitarian” countries on Earth, figures from the Bureau of Statistics show that the richest 20 per cent of the population control more than 60 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 60 percent control less than 20 percent of the wealth.

Inequality is about more than just money. The capitalist ruling class is defined by its control of something more important: the productive assets that are crucial to society’s functioning – the factories, the mines, the farmland, the telecommunications and transport machinery and infrastructure, the office buildings etc. Control of these assets means that they have the power to decide how resources will be used – what will be produced, where it will be produced, how many people will be employed.

On the other hand, the defining feature of the working class under capitalism is not poverty (although there is plenty of it). It’s the fact that it doesn’t own or control the things needed to make society function. Because of this, when faced with the above described relationship, workers have no choice but to submit in return for money. There is no other way to survive. Under this arrangement, the vast majority of the population is reduced to just another raw material to be chewed up in the production process.

Further to this, workers don’t own or control the products they create. Money is a claim on a certain portion of the products of labour, but workers don’t get paid in equal proportion to the labour they perform. Bosses are able to set the terms of the relationship. They pay workers only enough to ensure that they will have to come back and continue working day after day, year after year.

We’re accustomed to thinking about exploitation in moral terms, but it’s the basis of every workplace: whatever we produce, the boss will pay us only a fraction of its worth. So if we produce $200 worth of stuff in a day, he’ll keep $50 for himself and pay us the remainder. The more workers he has, the greater the surplus he accrues. It’s a great robbery in which a tiny minority accrues a large section of the proceeds of labour.

The market

The second thing to note about the system is that production is carried out for profit. We’re told that companies produce things to fulfil a recognised need. We need shoes, so we have shoe companies. We need furniture, so we have furniture companies. It seems to make sense. But try walking shoeless into a footwear shop and asking the manager, “I need a pair, may I take these?” We already know what they’ll say. We’re back to the money.

Under capitalism that rich tapestry of labour primarily produces commodities – things to be sold. Whether something has an intrinsic good or worth is not of importance to the bosses. Whether it is living or inanimate, whether it can save lives or destroy them is a secondary consideration. If it can’t be sold, it is worthless.

It gets worse. Capitalists compete against each other to produce goods and services for the market. There is no general coordination. It’s just millions of companies producing commodities and then trying to flog them off. No one can ever be certain whether what is being produced can be sold.

All this explains why almost 1 billion people around the world are chronically undernourished. Enough food is produced to feed everyone, but not all of it can profitably be sold. Much of it is either kept in stockpiles, ploughed back into the earth, dumped in the ocean or left to rot. The attitude of the capitalists in agriculture is, “Food isn’t produced to be eaten. If we can’t make money, then the food is worthless; people will have to starve.”

It’s not just about the intentions of individual capitalists, though. They don’t positively desire mass destitution. But the competition between each compels certain behaviours in all. To stay in business, each has to cut costs: keeping wages at a similar or lower level to those of the competitors, producing things as cheaply (and therefore as recklessly) as possible, selling the most units at a lower price or fewer at a higher price.

Making decisions that aren’t based on the bottom line can be suicidal in business terms because the least competitive (i.e. the least profitable) will likely go to the wall. In the above example, the human logic is to give the food to starving people. But under capitalist logic, the result of doing so is a decline in the price of the food that could still be sold, thus reducing the money made.

Further, the market obscures the real relationships between the people doing the work. Outside of the immediate relationship between the worker and the boss, the vast majority of our relationships are forged impersonally through the exchange of goods. The interaction of commodities – whether or not they are sold – determines the interactions of workers – whether or not they will have a job next month, whether or not they will be able to pay their bills, whether or not they will survive.

It is perverse. The market reduces everything to a money relation, and thereby debases human beings. Our status is diminished to that of an object – often of lesser value – while the things we create come to wield power over and against us. In everyday life we find ourselves helpless under the influence of commodities.

Coercion and control

Like the oppressive relations that are produced by it, the unequal distribution of resources is not natural. “If money ... ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek’,” wrote Marx, “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” It took incredible violence to establish the system – genocide of indigenous populations, the crushing of peasants, the formation of the constabulary to crack the skulls of rebellious workers and new industrial prison systems to lock away radicals.

When riches in the hands of a few sit side by side with poverty and want for the many, an enormous amount of violence will always be involved in keeping things as they are. The ruling class has an entire edifice in the form of the police and the legal system, which is charged with keeping “order” – i.e. maintaining the oppression and exploitation of workers.

This can be more obvious in dictatorships where people are gunned down in the street. But it is also true in Australia. An example is the way police are mobilised against unionists or protesters. Cops invariably turn up to send a message that resistance to oppression and exploitation implies criminality. Never do you hear of officers turning up to board meetings of the big corporations to harass the directors about their company’s occupational health and safety standards, or their environmental vandalism.

The key way the capitalist class maintains control, however, is the least obvious: consent. Ideological control is the most important pillar of the rule of the rich. On one hand, this means convincing the rest of us that their rule is legitimate. The more legitimacy they can maintain, the less open force they need to use, and the smoother the system runs for them.

Part of this is simply duping us into believing that we have a stake in the system: that hard work will allow us to “get ahead”, that the rich provide a service in the form of investment and ultimately that the system actually works. When it doesn’t work, when the contradictions and anarchy of the market break out in an economic crisis, legitimacy can still be maintained through the idea that individuals are the cause of the problems.

In the instance of doubt on our part about these “truths”, the key prop of the system is our belief that nothing can really change. Many might think the world is fundamentally unfair, but shrug their shoulders with reluctant acceptance. This is not just about being duped. Most people are forced to accept powerlessness in the face of market forces.

Yet our existence is torn between the world as it truly operates – exploitation by and subordination to the rich – and the false justifications for that operation. While many can accept the idea that corporate profit is important, they can at the same time react with great resentment when the practical ramifications of that idea are felt in lay-offs and unjust laws.

This contradiction in lived experience means that there is always the possibility of resistance, and with it the questioning of the common sense ideas that provide the system some ideological glue. At those moments, it often doesn’t matter what ideas someone holds.  Injustices always arise that stir people enough that they want to do something about them. Ultimately they then confront a system indifferent to their outrage. That can be a catalyst to the development of an understanding of the real workings of the world.

Struggle, even on a small scale, can start to challenge the sense of powerlessness and the under-confidence that the system fosters. Fighting against any aspect of this situation is a way to challenge the common sense ideas of subordination and acceptance. Through actually fighting, we gain confidence and get a taste of our collective strength.

Our strength

British historian Lord Acton famously wrote, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But we can see that it is the majority of humanity’s lack of power over the working of the world that is the problem.

For all its ills, capitalism has, for the first time in history, laid the basis for a truly democratic society. The world is already run through the cooperative labour of the working class. The conditions of existence of workers push them towards fighting for a world in which their labouring activity is liberated from the oppressive constraints imposed by capitalism. They have constantly to unite to defend their livelihoods against attacks from the capitalists. Here, the working class’s greatest power lies in its collective capacity not to work. When labour stops, the lights go out and the phones stop working. Most importantly, the lifeblood of the capitalists, profit, is stemmed.

Getting to this situation is not an automatic process. If it were, capitalism would be long gone. Workers not only have to struggle collectively (you can’t go on strike by yourself); they have to choose to struggle. Unlike the mostly unconscious cooperation that occurs in the tapestry of global labour, the cooperation of workers in the struggle against the system is by necessity a conscious and democratic process.

Workers’ struggle therefore has both a negative and a positive aspect. Negative in the sense that the class can paralyse the existing order simply by doing nothing. Positive in that through doing this, it creates the conditions for a new society based on democratic control of the workplace. Only the working class can wrest economic power away from the capitalist class. No other social force has this capacity.


Revolutions are the product of the system. They repeatedly break out because capitalism cannot meet the needs of the majority of the population. They are transformative events that give us a glimpse of the human potential that is buried under the weight of capitalist oppression. The Egyptian revolution in 2011 provides one small example. Once the revolution was under way, thousands spontaneously began sweeping the streets and cleaning up the neighbourhoods around the mass demonstrations. One journalist observed:

“This feeling of Egyptian pride is contagious as people are encouraging others to come outside with brooms and bags, voluntarily cleaning the streets. Muslim women have been taking their scarf pins to help attach ‘Keep Egypt Clean’ signs to men’s shirts; men themselves embrace one another with smiles, with hope and a love for the maintenance and environment of their country.”

Street-sweeping might seem just a curiosity. But it illustrates a broader phenomenon. The mass of the population wanted to “cleanse” their society of the corruption and decay of dictatorship. As they realised their power, the cleansing process began to spread to all areas of life. There was a newfound sense of ownership felt by masses of people who were ordinarily denied a say over how their city was run. This translated into a newfound sense of respect for themselves and their environment. People wanted to show their neighbours – and the world – that they could make their city and their lives far better if they had real control.

This is the sort of transformation Marx had in mind when he wrote: “Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way. But because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” The experience of revolution, of shared struggle, transforms the participants.

At those moments the hold of money and the drudgery of everyday life are shattered. And if the challenge is powerful enough, it can break down all the pillars of the capitalists’ rule. Labour can be liberated both from the oppression of the ruling class and from its domination by the objects of its toil. When that happens, the working class can lay its own claim on the world that it has created through its labour.

Follow Ben on Twitter @Benji_Hillier

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