Some of Marx’s ideas can be really thought-provoking. They strongly challenge some of the things about capitalism we never really think about but just blindly follow to this day. Before beginning to answer the question, I think it is important to ask, ‘Who is Karl Marx, what were his ideas and why were his ideas ever relevant at all? Marx was a German philosopher whose critical theory was that societies emerge through class struggle. He is thought of as one of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century and his ideas had a tremendous influence on many people such as Vladimir Lenin and they continue to be debated and referenced today.
One of Marx’s theories is called the labor theory of value and it describes how the value of a good is determined by the amount of labor used to produce it. This theory had a slight problem, it raised the question of how do capitalists make a profit if the price they sell at is equal to the cost of the labor?
The profit arises as a result of the surplus value created by worker’s labor. This is Marx’s theory of surplus value, that labor itself produces surplus value for the capitalist. Marx made a distinction between labor and labor-power, a worker may be hired for a certain amount of money per hour, i.e. given a wage, however in this time they may produce products in excess of their wage. This idea is definitely relevant today in the western world where most of us live and work in a capitalist society, and it is not an idea to be ignored. It is in fact common knowledge and shows just how deeply capitalism is ingrained in our minds that of course nobody is going to pay for example a factory worker in China 1000$ to make an iPhone. It just wouldn’t be economical. They wouldn’t earn a profit and therefore it wouldn’t be produced. The workers in these factories earn far less than the value of the goods they produce. I think Marx’s idea is relevant here as it offers an opposing view to the way capitalism operates and makes us question if it is really fair and the right way for things to be.
This leads me on to discuss Marx’s conflict theory. This is his idea that society has two main classes. The bourgeoisie who owns capital good and exploit workers, and the proletariat, the workers who sell their labor and are controlled by the bourgeoisie. Marx’s theory is that throughout history there has been a class struggle between the two, the rich bourgeoisie wanting to dominate and exploit the proletariat as much as possible. Marx predicted that if workers kept being exploited that the workers would eventually overthrow the capitalists. Clearly society today is not exactly as the theory suggests. Workers can no longer be exploited due to unions and government regulations such as a minimum wage. However, I still think the idea is relevant as it does explain a general divide between the rich and working class in most populations. Especially here in Ireland where we have house prices around Dublin skyrocketing and people dying on waiting lists at public hospitals.
Marx also had a theory of alienation in which he explains that in a capitalist society workers become separated from a number of things including the products they produce and normal human interaction. “All these consequences follow from the fact that the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object. For it is clear on this presupposition that the more the worker expends himself in work the more powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to himself” (Marx, 1964). He believed that working within capitalist systems made people become more like a profit-making machine rather than a human being with feelings and emotions and doing the same thing every day eventually leads to the worker becoming alienated and isolated even from themselves. This idea may not be entirely correct and alienation may not always result directly from capitalism, however I still believe this idea of his is still very relevant today. The technology of today is advancing at such a fast rate is it hard for people to keep up. Those who get left behind and don’t manage to pick up the new technology fast enough can become alienated from the rest of us. From my personal experience it tends to be the older generations who get isolated easier, as they just don’t have the time to learn about the new technology and engage with it. They’d rather stick with a medium they know, like a newspaper. Younger children could also be isolated from their friends if they don’t have access to the same kind of up technology. When it comes to technology there does tend to be an unequal distribution, which could further separate the rich and the poor.
I could see a counter-argument that Marx’s ideas are not at all relevant for today considering capitalism pretty much dominates most of our societies and communism seems to be generally frowned upon. Marx did ultimately make a prediction that eventually capitalism would come to an end and that hasn’t quite happened yet, although it could be argued it almost did. However, Sayers (2009) correctly explains how Marx argued capitalism was prone to crisis and would not have been surprised of the financial crash in 2008 that many economists failed to see coming at all. It can’t be denied that Marx had some great ideas about the problems associated with capitalism that almost 200 years later still prove true.