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Karl Marx is usually credited with coining the term “capitalism” to describe the economic system of our age. The prior system, feudalism, accorded power and wealth to those that controlled the land. Marx observed that power and wealth had shifted to those that controlled capital. The irony of describing today’s economy as capitalistic is that for Marx capitalism, as he thought of it, was only a small portion of the overarching system that really set him off.
The plain fact is that prosperity and productivity had nothing to do with Marx’s ire. The Communist Manifesto contains arguably the greatest paean to the productivity of the new system ever penned to paper:
“The bourgeoisie, in its reign of barely a hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive power than have all previous generations put together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to agriculture and industry, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even an intimation that such productive power slept in the womb of social labor?”
Wow! After that you would think Marx would be wild about the bourgeoisie reign. Note that Marx did not refer to a capitalist system, but to actions and accomplishments of a class of people. Indeed they were an entirely new class of people eschewing the status of birth, embracing the status of wealth, relentlessly pursuing profit.
This all suggests something deeper and broader for Marx’s negative sentiments found in his manifesto. In what I believe is the greatest paragraph in all of English nonfiction prose, the Communist Manifesto contains the answer. Having read both Capital by Marx and Conditions Of The Working Class In 1844 by Engels, I believe the following ideas are from Marx, but the words were Engels’:
“Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier times. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”
This is powerful stuff. The context of this text embedded in the Communist Manifesto is clearly negative in its thrust. Yet, a free market objectivist like me can only be moved by its eloquence, perception and accuracy. Unlike Marx, I revel in this new state of affairs. Unfortunately most are not unlike Marx.
In the narrowest sense, Marx preferred the old status based system because it favored lazy intellectuals like him. Later in the Communist Manifesto he notes that professionals, intellectuals, artists etc. merge into the working class and:
“[L]ive only so long as they find work, and … find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These workers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”
Heaven forbid! Intellectuals, professionals and artists have to actually work for a living providing something people actually want and for which they will pay. Dare I say it, they must be commercial!!!
More broadly and fundamentally, Marx strikes a deeply harmonious cord with the evolutionary base of the human psyche. The new system, which the word “capitalism” does not fully encompass, is as much about actions and change as it is about a market economy, laissez faire and globalization. Marx was the first to fully understand this. He was the canary in the coalmine of the industrial revolution noting that the new system brought constant, even accelerating change.
Humans are wired to detest change. For all of the history of life on earth change was always bad. Organisms strive to be in a place where they met their needs, and once there any new development was surely negative. This is why, despite the colossal productive prosperity all around us we are far from content, let alone happy.
We live in The Age Of Angst! Ours is the only truly unique age in all of history – future as well as past. Until yesterday, from a historical perspective, a person would be born, live and die in a world essentially unchanged. That is why ancient structures were built to last forever (and more than a few succeeding in that aim).
Therefore the correct word to describe the past’s prevailing world view was not cyclical, but circular. Details differed here and there, but everything eventually returned to its original position. Pestilence and war commonly caused havoc. Technology caused minor lifestyle differences. The world remained the same.
That world view has been obliterated. In my lifetime the world has been turned upside down and inside out not once, but going on twice. Historical processes that changed fundamental cultural traits like manners, dress, attitudes toward sex and women, marriage, family and religion used to take centuries and now take decades or less.
It is more than ideas and opinions that are swept away. We are in the only age where there is no cultural consensus about anything. People are making it up as they go along because there is no cultural point of reference. Until our age the notion of a fulfilling marital relationship or being a good parent had no meaning. You rose at dawn, worked like hell all day, hopefully ate afterword and dropped of exhaustion at dusk. There was not time or energy for anything else.
In a few hundred years or so humanity will probably sort this all out bringing a close to this only real age of change. We need a new word or phrase to denote this system impelling accelerating change referred to by Marx as the reign of the bourgeoisie. The concept of the free market is incomplete. Any suggestions?
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