Political Economy and Capitalism: Some Essays in Economic Tradition

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Work, he said, becomes degrading, monotonous, and suitable for machines rather than for free, creative people. In the end, people themselves become objects—robotlike mechanisms that have lost touch with human nature, that make decisions based on cold profit-and-loss considerations, with little concern for human worth and need.


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Marx concluded that capitalism blocks our capacity to create our own humane society. It assumes that people can successfully abolish an advanced, market-based society and replace it with a democratic, comprehensively planned society. Marx claimed that we are alienated not only because many of us toil in tedious, perhaps even degrading, jobs, or because by competing in the marketplace we tend to place profitability above human need.

The issue is not about toil versus happiness. We are alienated, he maintained, because we have not yet designed a society that is fully planned and controlled, a society without competition , profits and losses, money, private property, and so on—a society that, Marx predicted, must inevitably appear as the world advances through history.

But for Marxists to speak of alienation under capitalism, they must assume that a successfully planned world is possible. A staunch antiutopian, Marx claimed that his criticism of capitalism was based on the latest developments in science. Marx claimed that he had discovered the laws of history, laws that expose the contradictions of capitalism and the necessity of the class struggle. Marx predicted that competition among capitalists would grow so fierce that, eventually, most capitalists would go bankrupt, leaving only a handful of monopolists controlling nearly all production.


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  • This, to Marx, was one of the contradictions of capitalism: competition, instead of creating better products at lower prices for consumers, in the long run creates monopoly , which exploits workers and consumers alike. What happens to the former capitalists?

    They fall into the ranks of the proletariat, creating a greater supply of labor, a fall in wages, and what Marx called a growing reserve army of the unemployed. Also, thought Marx, the anarchic, unplanned nature of a complex market economy is prone to economic crises as supplies and demands become mismatched, causing huge swings in business activity and, ultimately, severe economic depressions.

    The more advanced the capitalist economy becomes, Marx argued, the greater these contradictions and conflicts. The more capitalism creates wealth, the more it sows the seeds of its own destruction. Ultimately, the proletariat will realize that it has the collective power to overthrow the few remaining capitalists and, with them, the whole system. The entire capitalist system—with its private property, money, market exchange, profit-and-loss accounting, labor markets, and so on—must be abolished, thought Marx, and replaced with a fully planned, self-managed economic system that brings a complete and utter end to exploitation and alienation.

    A socialist revolution, argued Marx, is inevitable. Marx was surely a profound thinker who won legions of supporters around the world. But his predictions have not withstood the test of time. Although capitalist markets have changed over the past years, competition has not devolved into monopoly.

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    Real wages have risen and profit rates have not declined. Nor has a reserve army of the unemployed developed. We do have bouts with the business cycle, but more and more economists believe that significant recessions and depressions may be more the unintended result of state intervention through monetary policy carried out by central banks and government policies on taxation and spending than an inherent feature of markets as such.

    On the contrary, socialism was forced on poor, so-called Third World countries.

    And those revolutions unwittingly condemned the masses to systemic poverty and political dictatorship. In practice, socialism absolutely failed to create the nonalienated, self-managed, and fully planned society. It failed to emancipate the masses and instead crushed them with statism, domination, and the terrifying abuse of state power. Free-market economies lift the masses from poverty and create the necessary institutional conditions for overall political freedom. Nor did his followers.

    If the first three-quarters of the twentieth century provided a testing ground for that vision, the end of the century demonstrates its truly utopian nature and ultimate unworkability. Today there is a vibrant post-Marxism, associated with the efforts of those active in the scholarly journal Rethinking Marxism, for instance. In this new literature, friedrich hayek seems to be getting a more positive reception than Marx himself. Exactly what will come out of these developments is hard to predict, but it is unlikely to look like the Marxism of the past.

    Marxism By David Prychitko. About the Author David L. Prychitko is an economics professor at Northern Michigan University.

    Kenneth Mallory Bookseller, ABAA

    Further Reading Boettke, Peter J. Boston: Kluwer, Karl Marx and the Close of His System. Clifton, N. Kelley, Burczak, Theodore. Socialism After Hayek. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, Institutional Login. Log in to Wiley Online Library. Purchase Instant Access. View Preview. Learn more Check out. Volume 19 , Issue 2 June Pages Related Information. Close Figure Viewer.

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