Earlier today while looking for something else, I came across the following essay that I wrote a few years ago (note: I was about 19...) and thought would be interesting to share.
The Contemporary Relevance of The Communist Manifesto in an Increasingly Global Society
"The chief cause of problems is solutions." - Eric Sevareid
From the vantage point of existence in the Post-Soviet era, it seems only natural to disregard the brief pamphlet that spurred the wheel of history into motion. The Communist Manifesto has largely been retired to the musty annals of human evolution, remembered mostly for its indignation and ultimately, its failure to permanently bring its dark prophecy to fruition. However, the conditions described by The Communist Manifesto as the necessary precursors for radical change are far more ripe today than they were in the nineteenth century. Despite capitalism's evolution, society remains essentially unchanged: "[T]he world transformed by capitalism which [Marx] described in 1848, in passages of dark, laconic eloquence, is recognizably the world in which we live 150 years later (Hobsbawm, 1998: 15)." Increasing globalization and neo-liberal public policy have stripped the ability of individual governments to regulate capitalism. At the same time, technological innovation has largely rendered unskilled labor obsolete. These two developments work in tandem to marginalize the most desperate segment of the proleteriat, creating a situation, which, left unchecked, could potentially lead to the deposition of the capitalist state.
Liberal market economies and centralized governments are ideologically incompatible, yet each needs the other to mediate its more volatile inclinations. Marx and Engels predicted that globalization would cause the decline of nation-states: "[The bourgeoisie] has agglomerated population, centralized means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization (Marx & Engels, 1998: 40)." However, as Keynesian policy has been replaced by neo-liberal institutional streamlining, it has become evident that no effective international institutions exist to regulate the global capital market. In a sense, this is an even more chilling scenario than the one the Manifesto proffers. As Hobsbawm asserts in The Age of Extremes, "[T]he central fact about the Crisis Decades is not that capitalism no longer worked as well as it had done in the Golden Age, but that its operations had become uncontrollable...The Crisis Decades were the era when the national state lost its economic powers (Hobsbawm, 1994: 408)." The Manifesto shares the same view of Capitalism's tendency to override Government's desire to simultaneously regulate and promote free markets: "Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorceror, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells (Marx & Engels, 1998: 41)." The United States could not sustain its role as arbitrator of global affairs when it became mired in recession during the Crisis Decades. The additional collapse of the Soviet Union, former patriarchal state of the East, meant that the Postwar "Bipolar World Order" had dissolved. Free-Market Capitalism, the only unifying agent in an increasingly chaotic political atmosphere, now operates almost completely unchecked by internationally coordinated policy.
Workers have unwittingly been contributing to their own demise since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The belief that technology creates more jobs than it destroys reigned supreme from the mid-nineteenth century through the Golden Age. However, at the same time that governments abandoned Keynesian ideals and began to scale backs social welfare programs, industrial innovation continued to accelerate to the point that unskilled labor was outmoded. According to The Age of Extremes, "The historic tragedy of the Crisis Decades was that production now visibly shed human beings faster than the market economy generated new jobs for them (Hobsbawm, 1994: 414)." This state and market-sanctioned process of pushing the poorest eschelon to the fringes of society created a class utterly disenfranchised by the American Dream of its parents' generation. The most significant consequence of this development is that many policies first instituted in the late-nineteenth century to quell the volatile desperation of the working classes have now been supplanted by rising inequality.
Those proficient enough to maintain their current status in the workforce are not guaranteed any permanent stability in a profit-driven market. Mechanization has made the plight of the wage-earner precarious: "[The workman] becomes an appendage of the machine...Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore of labour, is equal to its cost of production (Marx & Engels, 1998: 43)." Globalization has placed downward pressure on the wages of unskilled labor, as companies forced to be more competitive have utilized deregulation and trade agreements to secure the lowest cost of production possible. However, as Hobsbawm maintains in The Age of Extremes, instability of the workers' plight in the free market is due to fundamental differences between the human condition and the tenets of capitalism: "In any case the cost of human labour cannot, for any amount of time, be reduced below the cost of keeping human beings alive at the minimum level regarded as acceptable in their society, or indeed at any level. Human beings are not efficiently designed for a capitalist system of production. The higher the technology, the more expensive the human component of production compared to the mechanical (Hobsbawm, 1994: 414)." Workers must not only compete with cheaper labor costs in other countries, but also diminishing reliance on labor as a component of production.
Marx and Engels observed that the world was changing rapidly and fundamentally, allegedly in the name of progress. They foresaw a dark future for the denizens of the working class, who were little more than puppets in the hands of greedy capitalists. Capitalism has fulfilled the prophecy of the Manifesto in the sense that, "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere (Marx & Engels, 1998: 39)." Marx and Engels believed that the necessary consequence of industrialization would be the polarization of society into two distinct classes; the proletariat would then utilize political instruments to radically reconfigure society. However, trade unionism, the means through which Marx and Engels envision the proletariat empowering itself, has declined in every society, regardless of its dominant ideology. As Hobsbawm argues in The Age of Extremes, capitalism has outgrown the futile boundaries created by nation-states to contain it, at the same time as technological innovation has increasingly rendered the human component of the production process obsolete. Increasing globalization has meant that as less workers are needed, those able to obtain employment are earning less compensation for their labor. The condition described by The Communist Manifesto as the necessary precursors for radical change are far more ripe today than they were in the nineteenth century: "[W]hat might in 1848 have struck an uncommitted reader as revolutionary rhetoric - or, at best, as plausible prediction - can now be read as a concise characterization of capitalism at the end of the twentieth century (Hobsbawm, 1998: 18)." Globalization magnifies the competing interests of capitalism and social altruism, while simultaneously exacerbating an already precarious situation. Society is increasingly becoming polarized, as rising inequality marginalizes those most desperately in need of the two things that are rapidly disappearing from today's global economy: jobs for unskilled labor, and social welfare policies to augment the naturally low wages of those workers. Marginalized workers will become targets for social and political movements that seek to capitalize on their disenchantment with the dominant ideology -- whether those movements will be compatible with capitalism or not, only time will tell.
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes. New York: Vintage Books, 1996, Chapter 14 ("The Crisis Years," pp. 403-32).
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition. London: Verso, 1998, pp. 30-77.
Eric Hobsbawm, Introduction to The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition. London: Verso, 1998, pp. 1-29.