Moving Towards the Reality of Empowered People …
Marx conceived of a day when the disenfranchised proletariat would rebel against the powerful gentry and communalize all real holdings. The intermediate step would require a socialist structure, before the final step to communism would be possible. The leaders of this nation would be accountable to the proletariat, operating purely in the collective best interest of the larger community and the resulting government would be very democratic. In the instances where Marxism has been exercised to any degree, virtually the opposite has occurred. In the end, a new bourgeoisie developed – an elite group of politically minded people living in stark contrast to the general populace – that was more oppressive than that which it replaced. Productivity in countries without private ownership decreased rather than increased. The result was squalor, hunger, poverty and disillusionment – the very conditions Marx wished to overcome.
In the bastion of capitalism, the U.S., these concerns do not exist. Dreaded communism has been defeated in most areas of the world. In the U.S. ownership is widespread and small business – long the backbone of capitalism – is safe and sound. Sounds good, but is it true? The land is being accumulated and owned by larger and larger corporate entities. Businesses are combining through merger and acquisition into behemoths, while at the same time accruing monumental stores of assets with equally huge loads of debt. Small business everywhere is under fire from larger, more dominant companies that possess the capability of pricing them out of existence, only to raise prices and profits once the competition is dead. The economic gap between the rich and powerful and the poor widens with each passing day, and the middle class is at risk of being squeezed out of existence. Property ownership is getting harder and harder to maintain as the value of property itself spirals to realms only the truly wealthy can afford. Especially after this most recent downturn, the ratio of people losing money on the stock market to those profiting has increased considerably.
Is the economic environment in the U.S. un-developing into a similar stage of stratification as early European capitalism? Are we approaching the conditions under which Marx railed against the alienation of labor, but from the wrong direction? Is America moving toward the economic dictatorships that have been apparent in third world countries in which the vast majority of wealth is controlled by a tiny minority of elite individuals? If Marx had it wrong when he talked about communal ownership and instead had worked towards widespread private ownership as a revolutionary tactic to empower the worker, would he have changed the course of history more significantly?
…Towards a Kinder Benefactor …
American companies are more and more opting to become multinational corporations. The benefits are obvious – global marketplaces, increased demand to replace a stagnant domestic market, cheap foreign labor that increases profits and, of course, the premise that there is no existent multinational oversight on their operations. What fuels this expansion if not the U.S. population’s passion for consumption?
The underpinnings of Marx’s communist and Smith capitalist theories were very similar – a system of fair trade. Marx was going to achieve this through reduction of the disparity between the amount received for labor and the value of labor-power. The amount received for work would be a share of the benefit. Smith envisioned transactions that were based on mutual benefit. There is not much difference, especially in light of the fact that neither system has been actually instituted. The reason, distilled down to the lowest common denominator, appears to be greed. Both these economic philosophers believed that greed – unrestrained self-interest – would be mitigated in their respective systems.
Enter now the real world. American consumerism has caught the world’s attention one way or the other. Unlike any system that is based on equitable transactions, capitalism has become a win-lose proposition. In order to receive more for less, the key aspect to consumerism, someone in the equation has to get the short stick. Walmart, among many others, caters to the demand for price by buying product as cheaply as it can from underdeveloped countries, while at the same time in the U.S. it displaces six workers for every worker it employs. Coca-Cola Mexico has yet to pay for its first pound of sugar harvested by individuals who get paid on average thirty cents per hour, since it paid millions to the political elite in the 1970’s. The volume of scarce resources of the world controlled by these multinational corporations, in order to maximize profits, grows with every passing day.
Marx’s description of post-feudal capitalism as purely satisfying self-interest seems truer today than in his time. Is it possible to turn the tide of consumerism about face and institute a climate of fair trade in which any transaction consists of the exchange of goods for goods or currency of relatively equal value? If not, the revolution that he wished for may occur. It is arguable that the U.S., the world’s self-proclaimed human rights police force, is the primary economic oppressor of the majority of the world’s population. When Marx described the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was he simply predicting a revolution that pits the undeveloped and underdeveloped world against the U.S.?
…Towards a Better Future in this Life.
Marx saw Christianity as a participant in the oppression of the common people. Was he wrong? Has American religion become so embroiled in the economics of capitalism as it exists that it is actively encourages people to accept social, political and economic oppression as Marx suggested? On the one hand it seems not to be a just ground for criticism. Religion is based on faith. Often the roots of faith are not toward the values of material well-being, which is the primary ground of the critique of utility. On the other hand, most theologians are not insensitive to unnecessary material suffering. They don’t embrace suffering for the sake of suffering. Thus, a theological critique of a theology as being excessively insensitive to the current outcomes of its theology seems provocative and useful. Maybe it is time that Christianity took a good, long, hard look at itself through Marx’s lens.
Justo Gonzalez in his book, Manana, tells a parable that speaks to the current state of American Christianity. Paraphrased it is:
If I say my hope is to move to Japan and spend the rest of my days there, for I am convinced that no other country will be as wonderful, the depth of my convictions will be judged by my present actions. If I truly believe in this hope, I will begin learning Japanese immediately. All my decisions will move towards my relocation to Japan. I will not buy a house in Georgia, or a new car, or anything else, for that matter, that I cannot use in Japan. If I did anything else, my conviction would be hollow.
Likewise, If I truly believe that my hope lies in the expectation of the Reign of God, I will learn to speak Reignese – to speak in the language of love I’ve learned from God. I will organize my life according to the new order that I know is coming. I will not wait for tomorrow.[i]
In this way, Gonzalez is trying to illustrate that finding hope in the otherworldly sense of salvation is empty unless the trappings of that hope are manifest in our lives here and now. Whether it is the church as an institution or an individual, investments made in the present order make it exceedingly difficult to live in eager anticipation of a different order. We cannot profess to believe in the hope of a world as it ought to be, unless we are willing to change the conditions that exist to something more approaching the vision we have of a better eternity. Like it or not, Marx tried to do just that.
[i] Gonzalez, Justo, Manana, Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990. (p. 163)