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A Worker’s Paradise?

A reflection for May Day, the International Worker’s Day.

Imagine for a moment that you live in the most fair and equitable economy you can dream up.  There are some very specific things that most people in the developed world, especially Americans, would think would be a part of this.

There would be upward mobility, where family circumstances do not determine the kids’ future.  People could find their own way according to their own talents and choices as to what makes a good life.  Money would rarely limit dreams, as a free-flowing capital market would provide funding for good ideas at reasonable rates.  Most would own their own homes and have control over their own destiny.  Workers would own the company they work for, banking their retirement at a reasonable age on the place that they helped build.  Basics like food and access to health care would not be expensive.

Such a place is the embodiment of pieces of both the Democratic and Republican parties in odd turns.  This place of the imagination has also been  pretty close to the perfect state envisioned by Karl Marx, although it may be descending into an oligarchy (which I prefer to call “gangster state”).

Karl Marx

The world rarely understands the work of Karl Marx in a way that makes sense.  His work was taken over by radicals nearly 200 years ago and morphed into something even Marx could not relate to – at the end of his life he famously said “The last thing on this earth I would want to be called is a Marxist”.  100 years ago the perverted form of his work was crystallized into a “Socialist Republic” – Communism as we came to know it.  It was a brutal dictatorship that ran nearly the opposite of Marx’s vision.

I like to joke that the world is divided into those who think Marx was always right and those who think he was always wrong, when in fact he had an amazing ability to be half right about everything.  For the first person to take on his subject, however, half right ain’t bad.

What Marx laid out in “Capital” was a new way of looking at human history.  The struggles of history were not about the nobility of kings but the way material goods and land were distributed among people.  It was all about the stuff – who had it, how it was created, and how it could be taken away.  The lack of the basic scratch to survive started revolutions and was the primary threat to the ancient order that stood two centuries ago.

Workers of the World, Unite!

Workers of the World, Unite!

Two things should stand out right away.   The first is that this is the prevailing view of all history among even very “conservative” people right now.  The second is that when you avoid big “Marxist” terms like “dialectical materialism” the real meat of this analysis starts to sound pretty obvious.

In this Marx’s view of history, it seemed clear that where he stood at the early end of early industrialization was not a place that could possibly last forever.  The skies that separated monarchs from their supposed divine charge were thickened with black smoke that separated the two as clearly as night and dim day.  That’s how Marx came to see history as progressing from where he was into something else – a classless society where workers owned companies and basic needs were taken care of.

That wasn’t realized in the Soviet Union.  It came true much more clearly in Employee Stock Ownership Plans, 401ks, and a host of programs that make up the social safety net of a developed nation.  We are far more “Marxist” today than anyone who ever made that claim.

What keeps the global economy keepin' on.

What keeps the global economy keepin’ on.

This may sound academic, but there are interesting features of this Marxist world in which we live that seem hard to explain.  The first is that of the six largest economies (by currency), #1 Euroland, #2 USofA, #4 Japan and #6 UK are struggling under the weight of government systems that appear to be based on the free market but are in fact tilted towards socialized risk for the financial industry.  The ones that are doing well?  #3 China and #5 Brasil, both of which are much more overtly “socialist” (though I would not bet on hard-core China too heavily in the near future).

But if you want to find a European nation that is doing pretty well, look to Sweden – often a bulwark of Social Democracy and scorned by lovers of the free market everywhere.

There is a lesson here.  As we think about the Next Economy and how we can shape it, the struggles of people to obtain basic freedom, especially freedom from want and desperation, very much defines our world.  But that world is not contained easily in a narrow mythology defined two centuries ago.  That world also defined something that we came to think of as our enemy, even as we worked to achieve what was truly at the heart of it.

Revolution?  An awakening of the Romantic spirit?  It’s been there all along.  And, in odd ways, we were doing pretty well before we became horribly distracted – in different ways than other people became distracted, but whatever.  Let’s try to keep our eyes on what’s important, shall we?

11 thoughts on “A Worker’s Paradise?

  1. Great points about the misunderstandings surrounding Marx. Socialism and communism are different beasts from his initial thoughts on the means of production. I think there are counterarguments to the statement that we are more Marxist today. If you are referring to the fact that differences between social classes have been bridged in modern times, I can agree with the basic framework of that logic. However, a crucial distinction is that many of Marx’s ideas in Capital are not applicable to real world scenarios in a rigorous sense and anyone aiming for direct applications like that would probably view the world as drifting away from such goals. Your post brings up a good point though that there are lessons to be learned from Marx’s writings that can help shape an understanding of the economy. It’s a shame that Marx’s ideas have been branded by causes he had nothing to do with.

    • You are completely right when you say that a direct application of Marx to today’s politics cannot be done with any kind of rigor.
      That said, I think that his analysis of history has been completely accepted, and many of his goals have been accepted into mainstream politics. His prediction about where an industrial world was likely to go was rather accurate all around. And we have achieved much of what he thought an ideal state would achieve.
      The funny thing is that the Libertarians even get to claim him in the “whithering away of the state” part. 🙂

  2. You’re a brave man, writing about Marx sympathetically. But it looks like there aren’t any crazy comments yet. Can’t wait to see what developes. 🙂

  3. There is nothing wrong with a world where people share. I always thought of myself as a conservative person but I realize more and more that we can all share a little of what we have & be better off. If that is what Marx talked about than I am all for it.
    Dare I say that Marx sounds a lot like Jesus?

    • Comparing him to Jesus is pushing it real hard. But …
      There is this quote from Hélder Câmara, Archbishop of Recife, Brazil and a major proponent of Liberation Theology:
      “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

  4. If you want to give Marx the analysis of history I’m with you. The rest you can forget about. Total dead end.

      • Great conversation.
        Not sure what I think.
        Thanks for lots to think about.
        Marx placed #1 in a respected magazine a Year 2000 TOP 100 MOST Influential people of the Century Study article or whatever.
        I read that out of curiosity becouse it seemed so odd that that magazine would publish that. Turns out no one really reads The Communist Manifesto, including me. Though I mean to if for nothing else to understand what moved so many people so big and caused so much turmoil change revolution slaughter misinterpretation and according to what I remember far more difference in the avarage human life than the light bulb. By far the most influencial.
        Don’t remember the source, only how I experienced it And what it made me think and wonder.
        Slaughter House 401 and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook show a human side to people inspired and completly transformed by the communist movement. The Golden Notebook sorta implies why the movements where doomed and showed how that made everyone involved got cought in chewed and spit out and how her character had to transform and reimagine the world to survive. Not everyone did.
        Some pretty human stuff, story and history.
        This conversation is relevant. Thanks for it.

  5. There are great thinkers, who commit to pen/paper, great thoughts, ideas and aspirations –
    Alas – it so often falls into the hands of those who would twist the message in order to achieve their own goals – perhaps for good, perhaps not – – Living up to the ideal in any real way seems to be such a challenge for us humans…. 🙂

  6. Pingback: What is Software Worth? | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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