By Chet Yarbrough
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life
By Jonathan Sperber
Narrated by Kevin Stillwell
JONATHAN SPERBER (PROFESSOR AND AUTHOR)
Having just returned from China (more about the trip in a future blog), it seems apropos to revisit Jonathan Sperber’s biography of Karl Marx. In many respects, China’s resurgence as a major economic power suggests Marx may have outlined an economic system with some strengths, but communism and China’s form of communism have catastrophic weaknesses.
Johnathan Sperber has gathered an impressive amount of data in his history of Karl Marx’s life. Sadly, his presentation is not equal to his collection. Unlike biographies done by Robert Caro (who wrote “The Power Broker” about Robert Moses, the land planner of New York, and former President, Lyndon Johnson) or William Manchester (a Winston Churchill Biographer), Sperber fails to bring his subject to life.
KARL MARX (BORN TRIER, GERMANY 1818-DIED LONDON, ENGLAND 1883)
Marx is considered by some to be one of the three most influential economists that ever lived (Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes being the other two.) That high praise is not forcefully presented in Sperber’s biography. Sperber offers facts but leaves coherence to the reader.
Marx means something to the 21st century. Some might argue America is reaching a point in the history of capitalism that is foretold by Marx’s theory of socialist economics. As Sperber notes, Marx believed capitalism was a step in the economic evolution of the world, leading to a governmental revolution. Marx believed capitalism would reach a nadir of conflict between haves and have-nots because of social inequity inherent in capitalist economies.
As Sperber notes, Marx lived through and wrote about social conflict created by feudalism and capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century. Marx is raised in Prussia, ruled by a Czar in a feudal economic system. He witnesses growing discontent of feudalistic working-class Russia.
Marx created a theory of economic evolution showing feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and communism as progressive improvements in the lives of all people.
Feudalism grew out of the rule of Kings and Czars with a small aristocracy receiving privileges of wealth and property with the bulk of human civilization indentured to the privileged class.
As the indentured, under-privileged population grew, discontent led to revolution.
In 1776, America broke with English aristocracy to form a “checks and balances” democracy; in 1789, the French population broke with absolute monarchy to form a populist democracy; in 1848, German states rebelled against the aristocratic Prussian confederation of thirty-nine states ruled by an aristocracy and chose various forms of government to establish their own nationalist identities.
DENG XIAOPING (CHINA’S CHAIRMAN OF THE CENTRAL ADVISORY COMMISSION 1982-1987,) In 1980 Deng Xioping, though maybe not in a revolutionary sense, changed the direction of communism in China.
Each Chinese change in governance led to more liberal, slightly more democratic, and capitalist economies.
China did not abandoned communism but insisted on a more pragmatic way of governing. Deng’s famous quote, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. …. “, crystallizes China’s insistence on a communist form of government.
XI JINPING (GENERAL SECRETARY OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CHINA AND PRESIDENT OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA)
Hong Kong is presently in the throes of resistance to China’s encroachment on their semi-autonomous existence. Hong Kongers’ discontent could be seen in traveling to Hong Kong months before today’s demonstrations.
As nations prospered during the industrial revolution, more mercantile economies formed. Aristocracy became broadly defined by wealth rather than inheritance. Parliaments and congresses were created to represent wider population interests.
However, Sperber explains Marx believed that the greatest part of nation-state citizens remained in poor economic condition; even when based on mercantilism. Marx, looked at the economic condition of the world, and noted that transition from feudalism to mercantilism only marginally improved living conditions for the majority of state citizens and, in fact, actually worsened the condition of the young and impoverished who worked long hours for little pay. To Marx, capitalism just exacerbates the mercantile economic condition of the poor.
CHINA IS MOVING 250 MILLION PEOPLE INTO CITIES ACCORDING TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (Housing is un-affordable for a large percentage of new city dwellers. The government of China subsidizes housing for many Chinese that come from rural areas.)
In 2018, it seems China may be reaching a capitalist tipping point where low wages do not cover the cost of living. Though many Chinese have moved from rural areas, wages remain low in comparison to the cost of living. Housing and health coverage is un-affordable for a large percentage of new city dwellers. The government of China subsidizes housing for many Chinese that come from rural areas to mitigate the plight of the poor.
ADAM SMITH (1723-1790, AUTHOR OF -THE WEALTH OF NATIONS) Marx developed the labor theory of value to suggest that classical economic theory suggested by Adam Smith leaves too many people in the gutter.
Marx felt Smith did not properly quantify the value of labor. Marx argued that capital was created to benefit owners at an unfair expense to labor.
Marx believed capitalist aristocracy continued to victimize the working class, trading one form of indenture for another. Marx suggested democracy was an evolution for economies that widened the benefited population but still left most workers underpaid, undernourished, and disadvantaged.
Sperber clearly points out that Marx did not believe that communal ownership of property redressed the inequities of state’ economies; i.e. Marx argued that inequity is caused by capital creation that only benefited ownership and undervalued labor that created capital.
China’s current experience seems to show Marx may have been right to believe communal ownership has little to do with state’ economics because communal ownership remains a dominant factor in China’s extraordinary economic resurgence. Property is not owned by individuals in China. Land is either owned by a collective or by the State.
Though land cannot be owned by Chinese citizens, distribution of capital has been widely increased through rising prices of high-rise condominiums. Many high-rise condominiums are owned by individual Chinese. Some citizens inherited or bought condominiums at such low prices–appreciation made them rich.
The fly in the ointment of their newfound wealth is the price of sale must be agreed upon by the government which creates an artificial bubble that may burst into hyper-inflation, with the potential for a nation-wide economic collapse.
Marx supported worker unionization’s effort to equalize benefit through a more equitable distribution of capital. He was deeply involved in the “International Workingmen’s Association” (aka First International). Herein lays the evolution of capitalism to socialism and Marx’s belief (and maybe Xi’s belief) in the fairness of economic communism. Modern China seems to be addressing the idea of a more equitable distribution of capital on paper, but the paper is based on what appears to be an unsustainable real estate market.
Piketty argues that the income gap widens once again, after World War II. He estimates 60% of 2010’s wealth is held by less than 1% of the population; with a lean toward the historical 90% threshold. Moneyed interests have become the new aristocracy, as repressive and privileged as the Kings and Czars of the mid-19th century.
One can disagree with Marxian theory but the widening gap between haves and have-nots (the 1% and 99%,) is a real-world concern in the 21st century.
Marx’s solution for economic inequity is flawed but the condition he describes in the evolution of economies seems prescient. To most Americans, Marx’s communism is not the answer.
When CEOs of companies are making over 200 times average laborers’ income, there is a glaring problem in the current condition of capitalist economies. Instead of income differences, it is housing value in China. China is on a razor’s edge that may as easily cut their throat as shave their face.
This is a disappointing book because it garners too little interest in the power and influence of Marx’s economic theories. However, it offers insight to what Marx may have had right (the importance of distribution of wealth) and what he had wrong (communal productivity). China is using a different vehicle than America for distribution of wealth but the principle of wealth-distribution addresses what ails all forms of government.