Capitalism is unfolding exactly as Karl Marx predicted
One hundred and sixty years ago, at a time when the light bulb was not yet invented, Karl Marx predicted that robots would replace humans in the workplace.
Once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery,” he wrote in his then-unpublished manuscript Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism. The workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.
Gradually, in the century and a half since Marx wrote those words, machines have taken on more and more jobs previously done by humans. The 20th century political movements that attempted to make Karl Marx’s ideas reality may have failed but, 200 years since the philosopher’s birth on May 5, 1818, his analysis and foresights have repeatedly proven true. We are, in many ways, living in the world Marx predicted.
Marx showed that recurrent crises were not an accidental side effect of capitalism, but a necessary and inherent feature, explains Nick Nesbitt, Princeton University professor of French and Italian and editor of The Concept in Crisis: Reading Capital Today. “He shows that the source of value in capitalism is living labor. He also shows that capitalism nonetheless tends to eliminate living labor as a necessary dimension of its development, Nesbitt says. That contradiction means capitalism is never stable, but forever shifting in and out of crises: The system depends on human labor while simultaneously eradicating it.
And the stakes are high. Marx analyzed capitalism as a social system, rather than a purely economic one. “Humans and human relationships depend on our place within the system of capitalism itself,” says Nesbitt. “If we don’t find a place within the system as individuals and human beings then we live under exclusion.” Capitalism doesn’t just determine our source of income but how we relate to each other, our surroundings, and ourselves. To be rendered superfluous by the system is damning to social wellbeing as well as economic livelihood.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” It may be tempting to dismiss Marx’s analysis given that his communist vision failed in practice. However, the politics that developed in the Soviet Union were “not part of Marx’s vision of a social structure” says Nesbitt, but “developments of Leninism and the Russian revolution.” Most of Marx’s work was focused on critiquing capitalism, and he wrote relatively little about exactly what it would take for communism to become reality, or how it would function. Marx famously popularized the slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” meaning that all would have the opportunity to reach their highest potential and to receive the needed goods, such as food and shelter in turn. But, notes Carol Gould, philosophy professor at Hunter College, City University of New York, Marx didn’t say much about what this mantra would look like in practice.
Besides, Marx thought true communism would develop only under certain conditions. “Marx predicted that for a communist revolution to survive, it would need to involve the countries with the most developed industries, and become at least as broadly international as the capitalist system it would replace,” Vanessa Wills, political philosopher at George Washington University, writes in an email. “Neither of these conditions were met in the case of the Soviet Union, which was always highly economically isolated.”
And so it would be wrong to confuse the failure of 20th century communist states with the failure of Marx’s thoughts. Two centuries later, Marx’s writing remains one of the most “penetrating” analyses of capitalism, says Nesbitt.
He was correct that the gap between labor and capital would get worse.” The thinker was not only right about the rise of automation. He also predicted globalization and the rising inequality of today, notes Gould. “He was correct that the gap between labor and capital would get worse,” she says. Marx predicted that capitalism would lead to poverty in the midst of plenty,” a scenario that’s depressingly familiar today. “HUD [US department of housing and urban development] estimates there are roughly half a million homeless people in the United States on any given night, in a country that is estimated to have roughly 18 million empty homes in it,” says Wills.