Gateways to Marx (A Crude Outline--with some asides to education)

Rich Gibson 2003

Alienation: Marx's initial questions were essentially: why are people alienated from the main matter that influences their lives, work/labor, and why are people alienated from each other? What might transform, overcome, alienated life? What is it that society might offer, within society as it is, the potential to be something more? Alienation means separation, apartness, estrangement, broken off from....excluded. How might people reconnect on a more humane basis?

Exploitation: In part, Marx answers the question of alienation with an analysis of exploitation. Using the Master-Slave analogy (which predates Plato), he suggests that people who are born in the social relationship which can best be described as capitalism are exploited when they work. They are set up for exploitation, must sell their labor, because they are mostly propertyless. They are propertyless because over time they were driven off the land, and at the same time, a relatively small group of people came to own the means of production (factories, tools, etc). All property, in the broad sense, is theft. These people are alienated from one another in part because those who must work must compete with each other for jobs. Those who own must compete with one another as well as with the workers. Hence, the system of capital is mainly a war of all on all, despite the fact that many people often behave cooperatively (neighborliness, comradeship in battle, family care, etc).

Alienation and Exploitation: People who must sell their labor to live; that is, the vast majority of people, are drawn together in systems of production which, over time, are more and more socialized (bigger plants, more interconnected forms of exchange, technology and communication, etc). However, the people who must work, who form a social class, do not control the process or the product of their work. They do not determine how the work will be done, nor do they choose what will be done with the product (whether it is a Pinto or a chocolate). In addition, importantly, the more they engage in this form of exploited work, the greater the difference between them and their employers grows. Each group forms, in essence, a competing social class, hence Marx says, "history is the history of class struggle."

In schools, teachers are alienated from students(grading, tests), from the curriculum (textbooks, regulated curricula) parents, and administrators--and each other (competition for jobs and wages). Kids, the focus, or 'product' of schools, are particularly alienated, distanced from meaningful struggles for what is true, from freedom, from democracy, from equality.

Surplus Value: This is the heart of exploitation. Within the system of capital, when masses of workers produce a given commodity, none of them is paid the full value of their labor. For example, if 100 Ford workers produce a Pinto which is sold for, say, $10,000, the workers will not divide that $10,000. They will be paid less, even though it is labor, over time, that creates all value. Surplus value, in essence, is the amount left over when the owner has paid out the taxes, costs of reinvestment, costs for technology, etc. To survive, each capitalist must always be in search of ways to increase surplus value, or another capitalist will, leading to the ruin of one or another. One requisite of capital: expand or die.

Expanded surplus value can be achieved in many ways: lengthening the work day with no pay increase, speeding up processes of production, cutting pay or reducing benefits, the use of technology to decrease the work force, de-skilling workers to make them easy to replace, maintaining a huge army of (usually color-coded) unemployed people to pit one group against another, the discovery of cheaper raw materials or new markets in which to sell, etc. However, since labor creates all value, the expansion of surplus value always comes at the expense of the people who must work to live.

So, as people are ALIENATED by the processes of exploitation, that is the more they work within the system of capital, they not only cannot control the processes or products of their work, they also consistently enrich those who live at odds with them--over time their labor (in which all existing wealth and means of production is stored) is turned against them. This is how Marx was able to say the under the system of capital, dead labor (property accumulated in the means/instruments of production) dominates living labor. And, in this dominated relationship, getting a wage increase is like winning golden handcuffs. Even so, the working class, proletariat, is the first class in history that has a real interest in ending the Master/Slave relationship that has towered above history; they have an interest in ending exploitation altogether.

Teachers create surplus value in the sense that they prepare the next generation of workers, they manufacture (real or false) hope, and they participate in schools as huge markets (and warehouses). Education produces labor power.

Commodity Fetishism: Capitalism is propelled, in part, by the sale of commodities, for a profit (as in surplus value). Over time, both workers and the employer class relate more to things than they do to other people, indeed people begin to measure their worth by commodities, especially the chief commodity, money, which in many instances becomes an item of worship. Businesses no longer focus on making, say, steel for use, but on making money, for profits. People who must sell their labor become commodities themselves, and often view themselves and their own children that way. People then begin to see what are really relations between people, as relations between things (every human relationship mainly an economic one), which leads to the concept of reification. In schools, children have been routinely commodified, sold to companies like McGraw-Hill (textbooks) and Coca Cola-but most teachers would agree that this process has accelerated in the last decade.

Reification: The relations of people, disguised as the relations between things, become so habitual that it seems natural. Things people produce govern peoples' lives. "Natural laws," really inventions of people, replace real analytical abilities (as in seeing supply and demand, or scarcity and choice, as the centerpieces of economics, rather than seeing economics as the story of the social relations people create over time in their struggle with nature to produce and reproduce life--or in political science, discussing democracy as if it had nothing to do with social inequality). Normalcy in some capitalist countries is really manufactured consent to exploitation-masked as freedom. Test scores are good examples of reification in school. Measuring little but parental income and race, test scores are worshiped uncritically, influencing peoples' live far beyond their real value.

Crises: Marx's analysis said that capital is riddled with crises, and feeds upon them. These crises are interrelated, but to take them in parts, (a) overproduction--because overtime capital uses technology, speed-up, wage cuts, etc., to drive down wages and raise the levels of surplus value, at a certain point the mass of workers can no longer afford to buy the products they produce; (b) declining rate of profits--because labor creates all value, and at the same time employers must invest heavily in technological improvements in order to keep ahead of competitors, value stored up in the means of production comes to outweigh value in what Marx called variable (or more profitable) capital, that is, the workers. So while the workers become impoverished by overproduction, the bosses are driven toward other ways to increase surplus value beyond technological advances.

Imperialism: At a certain point in capitalism's development, finance/monopoly capital (banking interests, with big fish always eating little fish, etc) dominates even manufacturing capital. Finance capitalists must seek new markets, cheap labor, raw materials, at a frantic pace, a tempo that the centrality of money makes possible and necessary. While capital has always accumulated land, resources, and surplus labor from all over the world, at a certain point the pace of this accumulation becomes imperialism. Since capitalism was born within, and along with, nations, and relies on national armies for a good part of its strength, the battle for resources frequently becomes imperialist war (as in WWI, Vietnam, Iraq, etc) between nations, each ruling class claiming ethical high ground. Workers in imperialist armies "do not fight their enemies, but the enemies of their enemies."

Every imperialist nation relies on repression of all kinds in its colonies, in many cases out-right fascism. This makes the link between every imperialist nation and fascism, even if fascism is not the method of rule in the homeland. The fruits of imperialism (cheap labor, raw materials, markets, regional and social control) create super-profits which can be used to buy off the leadership of unions inside the empire (as with the notorious links of the AFL-CIO with the Central Intelligence Agency through, for example, the National Endowment for Democracy) and, for a time, these profits can even be used to build nationalism, and support for fascism, among the workers of the homeland.


The State, or Government: Marx viewed the state as directly tied to the system of production in which is was born. Feudal estates and serfdom gave rise to kings and queens, mass production and finance capital gave rise to bourgeoisie democracy, but each system, rooted in inequality, was or is mainly a weapon in the hands of the powerful. Schools, like any workplace, are contested terrain, where people resist in struggles to be more creative, more free, paid more, more connected with others. But schools are also governmental institutions-subject to rule. Other state institutions are somewhat easier to decode. The military is commonly a weapon of the powerful, as are the police. The welfare system exists to regulate, not truly provide for, poor people (and why are there poor people?). The prisons are full of the poor.

War: Marx was clear that imperialist wars were the logical and necessary culmination of capitalist development, and equally clear that while wars were an indication of the weaknesses of capitalists (and would lead to revolutions as happened later in the USSR and China), he was also clear that capital does not die because of crises, but thrives in the destruction. Still, the processes of capitalism, of which war is a part, also draw people together in unprecedented ways, offer them intellectual and material possibilities to live in new ways, if they so choose. The key contradiction of capitalism is the social nature of production, drawing people together, and the nearly individual nature of expropriation, blasting people apart. It is here, in relation to other crises of capitalism (overproduction, depression, famine, etc.) that Marx argues the social nature of production, "too much civilization," is held back, "fettered," by the social relations of production (individual appropriation), to the point that the stage is set for a sweeping transformation, an overturning of the old social conditions.

Resistance and Revolution: Love, work, knowledge (the struggle for what is true) and the struggle for freedom, equality, and creativity are the motive forces of history. People resist because they must, to live. Resistance, however, is not a full transformation, a complete overcoming. At issue remains what it is that people need to know and, significantly, how do they need to come to know it, to get beyond capital, or,how might working people escape, overcome, what is really a vast company store? Ideas and pedagogy would seem to be a key product of schools.


Capital, Marx

Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx

Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels

Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness

Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

Gibson, Political Economy for the Earnest:


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