For most people today, in Britain and beyond, the growing immiseration caused by rising costs, increasing rents, precarity in work and stagnating wages is coupled with the existential question of our survival as a species in the face of widespread ecological breakdown. The crises we face are multifarious and insidious, and making sense of how and why they came about can feel impossible. Without explanations grounded in material reality, we risk seeing ourselves as the powerless victims of invisible forces and bogeymen, the stuff of conspiracy theories.
Analytical tools developed by Karl Marx – or, more accurately, by the collective intelligence of Marx and his close comrades – can help us understand the world as we know it today, and to develop the strategic thinking we need to overcome these crises. Learning from Marx doesn’t mean believing that he was always right. Most notably, against his predictions, capitalism persists. A century and a half and many failed revolutions after Das Kapital, we are still firmly under its thumb.
Ever since Marx’s call to arms, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’, revolutionaries the world over have developed distinct approaches to achieving communism. Arguments over ‘what is to be done?’, as Lenin famously put it, have led to damaging rifts in revolutionary workers’ movements.
More useful for today is focusing on how Marx defined capital’s mode of operation – the workings, dynamics and contradictions of capitalism and the social relations through which it is reproduced. In developing this shared language to diagnose the crises we face, we can, in turn, identify where we have leverage to build power in our own workplaces, communities and campaigns. The main challenge facing us is no longer convincing people that capitalism is miserable and destructive, but that we are capable of something better. Only by understanding how the world is built are we able to reconstruct it.
This exploration of key Marxist concepts and the questions they raise is by no means exhaustive but offers a good starting place.
Marx asserts: ‘The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.’ That’s where we must start. In a capitalist world, the way we interact is mediated by the production and exchange of commodities. We are conditioned to accept this as a natural state of affairs and we reproduce its social relations unconsciously.
Think of a pint of beer. You go to the pub and cough up, say, a fiver for it without a second thought. Why? There’s nothing inherent to the beer that dictates it should cost £5. The price reflects a series of social relationships obfuscated through the mediation of commodity exchange. The interaction appears to be between your £5 and the beer you swap it for, and you can enjoy it without considering all the people and processes involved in making it, from the hops being harvested to your first sip, all hardwired into the £5 you hand over for it. Every time we buy a commodity, we’re paying for the dead (and exploited) labour of the workers that produced it.
In the context of sky-high profiteering and rising everyday costs, how do we disrupt the relentless cycle of commodity production and exchange?
Our bosses own the means of production and can coerce us into work by offering a wage in exchange for our labour power (our capacity to work). But once we have earned our own means of subsistence (and increasingly, barely even that) our bosses keep all the surplus value they receive from exchanging the product on the market. For example, if I create value at the equivalent of my wage within the first few hours of my workday, I am spending the remaining hours creating value over which I have no ownership or control. I am alienated from my labour.
Think of your workplace. Where do you create surplus value for your boss? Are you producing a commodity where this dynamic is clear cut, or is it less easily deciphered – such as in an NGO or the public sector?
In thinking through exactly where and how we produce value for the capitalist class, we can begin to think through our points of leverage as workers.
Technological innovations have the potential to give workers more autonomy and free time – but only, under capitalism, if workers struggle collectively to those ends. More fundamentally, they offer capitalists the opportunity to increase the rate at which they gain surplus value through their control over both labour power and machinery, together termed ‘the means of production’.
Think of the last time your workplace introduced new software or kit that made your job easier or faster. As a result of your increased productivity, did you see a reduction in your working hours or a pay rise? Most likely not. Under capitalism, technology serves to intensify our labour: we achieve more in our workday and produce more surplus value for our bosses – without benefiting from it.
Technological innovations under capitalism can also present existential threats to the working class. Automation can put the jobs of a whole workforce at risk of redundancy. For example, the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) is campaigning to stop staffed ticket offices being replaced by machines, making thousands of RMT members redundant. These questions are compounded by exponential developments in artificial intelligence, which present new challenges to grapple with.
Marx’s interventions on extraction and ecology are underappreciated. To Marx, capital is vampire-like – it grows stronger the more it extracts. Not only from living labour (workers) but from the planet too. Capitalism’s drive towards profit and growth is fundamentally at odds with a sustainable planet.
Marx wrote: ‘Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.’
The fight for workers’ autonomy is inextricably linked to the fight for a liveable planet. Yet concerns persist about the political savvy of the mainstream climate movement, and, conversely, the trade union movement’s commitment to climate justice. There are contradictions to be ironed out, including that eyewatering investment in fossil fuels involves thousands of jobs in this extractivist industry. In this context, we must think through how to build alliances between workers and climate movements, in recognition of our broader common struggle.