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Marx on the Mark

As a teacher I am always looking for new ways to challenge the received wisdom I encounter in the classroom.  One of the most pervasive examples of this is the belief that Karl Marx is historically irrelevant; a grumbling misanthrope who has nothing to say to a modern reader.

Recently, I selected excerpts from the Communist Manifesto, that much maligned but rarely read document from a bygone era, and everywhere I found the words “bourgeoisie” or “bourgeois” I replaced them with “corporation” or “corporate”.  I then showed it to several people who had never seen the Manifesto and asked them what they thought of it.  Everyone I asked thought it was contemporary criticism, relevant to our times, and right on the mark.  Hmmm…The government as steering committee for the giant corporations?  Big Business conversion of vocational work into big money wage reward? Commercial advertising infiltrated into every conceivable space? The cheapening effects of junk commodities? The Disneyfication of culture? Infotainment in place of real news? The absorption of everything possible into the priced market?  It’s all there. Only today, it may look even more obvious than it did 150 yrs. ago.

Here is the excerpt, with changes underlined:

“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole corporation.

The corporation, wherever it has got the upper hand, has…left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”… It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The corporation has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

The corporation has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

The corporation… has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals.

The corporation cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the corporate epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…”

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the corporation over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The corporation has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.

The corporation, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the corporate mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become corporate themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

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Matthew Stanton is a Professor of Law at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

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