Marxism 101

This episode was made in collaboration with AzureScapegoat. They run a fantastic channel covering all sorts of leftist topics, so be sure to check out their video after this. 

[Series of clips showing the word “Marxism” being used incorrectly by news figures/politicians]. If there’s one thing America has down to a science, it’s twisting the meaning of words and using them to terrify the population. Ever since the Soviet Union rose to prominence to the point of competing with the US for global supremacy, the powers that be have fought hard to burn the image of communism and socialism as great evils into the mind of the average American. In this episode, we’re going to correct the record. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing ideas you disagree with, but in order to do that, you have to engage with accurate depictions of those ideas. So, let’s talk about America’s favorite boogeyman – Marxism. But before we do that, we need to briefly discuss the history of Capitalism. 

 

Chapter one – when capitalism was progressive. Once upon a time, there existed an economic system that was neither capitalism nor communism. Shocking, right? Under this arrangement, lords granted parcels of land to the lower echelons of society, and the recipients, known as vassals, in exchange would work the land and vow to fight for their lord should he call upon them. This was a pretty sweet deal for the nobility, because they got laborers to work their land, grow them food, and fight in their wars. The vassals had little choice other than to enter into these agreements in order to stave off starvation and abject poverty. This type of arrangement later became known as feudalism, and from a modern perspective, it seems outdated and cruel. Fast forward several centuries, and we begin to see a fledgling new economic system take its first steps. Somewhere between the 14th and 15th centuries, feudalism lost ground to a market-based system, one that elevated some of the lower tiers of society, creating a new merchant class – not quite peasant, but certainly not nobility. Since that time, various interpretations of market-based economies have been implemented with varying degrees of success around the world. When proponents of capitalism say that it raised the standard of living for millions of people, they’re correct. Capitalism has its place in history and has unquestionably increased global production many times over since the days of feudalism. But just like technology keeps advancing, so too does history need to keep moving. And just like feudalism was overtaken when it became outdated, so too will capitalism need to be replaced with a superior system. We have a tendency to believe that history is only something that happened in the past, that we’ve now reached the end of history. This perspective makes it difficult to see that life and progress are ongoing processes, and that there will come a time when Capitalism will seem as outdated as feudalism. I believe that we’re at a point where large portions of the world population are beginning to realize that global capitalism is actively making their lives worse, the system having generated such vast oceans of capital in the hands of the powerful that it’s left the masses to suffer needlessly, even in tremendously wealthy countries. This inflection point, the shift in public perception to viewing capitalism less than favorably, signals the beginning of a massive societal change. Capitalism is falling out of favor, just as feudalism did those hundreds of years ago. 

So, what exactly is wrong with capitalism? This is the part where you may have to grit your teeth and sit through some things you don’t want to hear. In America, we’ve gotten our self-identity so wrapped up in our economic system that we see capitalism and America as the same thing. Capitalism is our national identity, and therefore any criticism of capitalism is an attack on the nation itself. This should not be the case. An economic system is just one way to structure the monetary relations of a country. It’s not a national culture. Capitalism is a tool, which, in theory, should elevate the people of said country and materially improve their lives. Let’s look at some examples of why this is no longer the case. 

 

We’ll start with the most obvious problem – the massive discrepancy between worker and executive compensation and power. Your paycheck isn’t actually based on how good a job you do – not really. Your boss is in a position of power where he chooses which people to hire and which fire. The people that work for him produce goods or services which then become his property and which he then sells to make a profit. Your paycheck is, in reality, determined by your minimum needs, and your boss’ requirements for labor power in relation to the number of people competing for jobs. The more people who are unemployed – the more people who are looking for jobs – the easier it is for companies to hire desperate poor people for minimum wage. In this way, unemployment in society is actually beneficial for capitalists. And having a large reserve of people ready to step in and work for minimum wage means that the average employee is always living in fear of losing their job. If you make a fuss, if you complain, if you try to get a union involved, there is always someone to take your place. To the capitalist, you are expendable. Just another cog in the machine, to be replaced at their convenience. It’s in your boss’ interest to make your paycheck as small as possible, while increasing the prices of goods and services. This maximises profits for him, but forces you to tighten your belt. When your boss pays you crumbs compared to what you could be making, and your landlord raises your rent, that leaves you with a lower quality of life and less financial mobility. This all works out beautifully for the owner class. Their profits increase year after year. There is, however, a flaw in this system. You know, besides the blatant disregard for human life. Unemployed and poorly paid workers don’t provide a profitable market. When workers are paid so little that they can barely afford rent, how could we expect them to buy goods and services on the market? Companies produce more and more consumer products, but what happens when the consumers can no longer afford the very goods their labor produces? This creates a snowball effect. Low wages and precarity lead to an unprofitable market; an unprofitable market means that the production of consumer goods is limited, which inevitably leads to depression. 

 

Have you ever noticed how there seems to be an economic crisis, like, once every 10 years? Well, that’s actually not by accident. Those crises have been happening ever since the very beginning of capitalism. This upward and downward motion of the market is known as the business cycle. Boom and bust. Yo-yoing from one extreme to the other every decade or so. 

The boom comes from the accumulation of wealth. When prices go up, and wages go down, companies make money. But if the people are squeezed too hard, and the market becomes unprofitable, it then leads to a depression, businesses close, people lose their jobs, debts aren’t paid, banks collapse, governments run out of money. That’s an economic crisis. And they’re just gonna keep coming, even though every one of them will be dressed up as once-in-a-lifetime and sure-to-never-happen-again. Just like we heard in 2008, and just like we heard during the Corona crash, which, not to be overly pessimistic, is only a teaser for what we’ll see in the next couple years. Don’t be fooled: Capitalism is unstable by its very nature. The system encourages greed, and because of this, capitalism will always shoot itself in the foot in the name of short-term gains over long-term stability. Just look at the financial crisis of 2008, the largest upward transfer of wealth in modern American history, until the Covid pandemic, of course. In short, the stock market crash was caused because predatory institutions became too greedy. They began offering unstable housing loans to people who would not have normally qualified. This led to millions of people taking on loans that would implode and that they would be unable to pay back. Housing prices went up, creating what’s known as a “speculative real-estate bubble,” and, as bubbles do, it burst, triggering the single largest single-day stock market drop in history, up until that point. Millions of Americans lost their homes, their jobs, their healthcare, and many of them never recovered from the financial devastation of 2008. In the wake of the millions of evictions and foreclosures, huge corporate real estate firms and banks snapped up the empty houses at bargain bin prices, and many of them are held captive on the rental market to this day. In the end, the average American bore the brunt of the fallout, and the executives and capitalists behind the disaster got off scott free. The housing crash is a huge, complicated topic, and I would encourage you to read more about it, but the most important thing to realize is that what should have been a completely avoidable catastrophe was inevitable because of our rabid devotion to ever-increasing profits. We’ve seen a similar occurrence since the beginning of the pandemic. The richest people in the country have increased their wealth at a staggering rate, while average Americans have again lost their livelihoods and their healthcare, which is a pretty bad thing to lose in the middle of a plague. But, since providing our citizens with universal healthcare isn’t profitable to insurance companies, our healthcare is tied to our employment. When we lose our job, we also lose our right to live in the eyes of our corporate overlords. To them, a human life has no value except what profits can be extracted from it.”this isn’t due to some inherent evil in every corporate executive. It’s simply a byproduct of capitalism. Capitalists are very much conditioned into being “cruel” because cutting wages and other actions harmful to workers rewards them with greater profits, and giving their workers maternity leave punishes them with reduced profits. Even good people are affected by this. The problem isn’t rich people as individuals but capitalism as a system. Business owners learn to see everything in terms of revenue and expenditure. Taxes are an expense, rent is an expense, raw materials and machines are expenses, and that means labor is also seen as just another expense. “Human beings are reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet.”

 

That brings us to our next point. Capitalism doesn’t care about human wellbeing. The primary concern of every nation should be the wellbeing of its citizens, but in modern hypercapitalist countries, the only factor worth considering is the almighty dollar. Profit is the sole driver. Contrary to what we’re taught about classical economics, capitalism does not  follow the law of supply and demand. Housing is in huge demand, but it’s not profitable to supply it, so people go homeless. As of 2019, the US had a homeless population of nearly 600,000 people. We also have over 17 million vacant homes. We could house nearly the entire population of the New York Metro area, that’s the nearby cities in New York, New Jersey, and connecticut, but we won’t house just 600,000 people because it’s not profitable. We’d rather let them die of exposure because, under capitalism, their lives have no inherent value. And remember, those homelessness and empty homes figures are from before the pandemic. We currently have somewhere in the ballpark of 50 million Americans facing eviction or foreclosure because of our toxic system’s inability to handle crises like the covid pandemic. This will never change unless we’re able to move beyond capitalism and assert that, yes, humans do have innate value beyond what capitalists can extract from their labor. And of course, the problems at home pale in comparison to how wealthy capitalist nations treat the rest of the world, especially smaller or weaker nations that we can bully. Just about every instance of American foreign intervention in the last 70 years has been in the name of capital. Whether we’re securing oil fields, deposing leaders who want to escape the stranglehold of imperial rule, or creating environments favorable to US corporations, we’re not afraid to use our military to destabilize and destroy other nations and regions in order to make a quick buck. The middle east is the most recent example. We’ve been meddling in the middle east for decades. We entered Iraq under false pretenses, propagandizing the American population with false intelligence reports. The global community knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but it sure made for convenient cover to start a war that was unjustifiable otherwise. The tendrils of capitalism don’t stop at the borders of our nation. They unjustly influence the daily lives of innocent people around the world, not because America is necessarily evil and wants to kill people, but because our capitalist system demands it. There is no alternative if we want to maintain global supremacy. 

 

Okay, so what’s the alternative? I know a lot of people are frustrated that videos like this often don’t provide anything beyond criticism of the current system. I’ll do my best to explain why socialism is a necessary next step. Under capitalism, your paycheck is made as small as possible, unemployment is a positive for the ruling class, there being more empty homes than homeless people is simply a profitable housing market, automation leaves people without jobs, and healthcare is a luxury rather than a human right. Socialism turns all those negatives on their head. Your paycheck is fairly scaled in accordance with the quality and quantity of your work, there’s never a shortage of new jobs, homelessness can easily be eliminated, and automation allows for people to spend their time pursuing their actual passions instead of toiling away in factories. The struggling artist who wanted to write symphonies but couldn’t due to their financial situation will now be afforded the opportunity to pursue their aspirations. It’s like the American Dream – only real. The fundamental difference between capitalism and socialism is that capitalism puts the interests of the market before the interests of the people, and socialism is just the opposite.

 

One of the most fundamental flaws of capitalism, including Scandinavian social democracy although it may seem to many a nice compromise between capitalism and socialism, is that capitalism and markets fundamentally rely on profit. Every year, a company’s profit has to increase. Every year, a country’s GDP has to increase. Forever and ever, for the rest of time, we always have to keep growing, keep expanding our economies, keep building new factories, keep producing more consumer goods. On an ever more finite Earth, infinite growth is a recipe for disaster. A disaster of which we’re already seeing the beginnings. Not to mention the fact that we produce *more than we need* [insert picture of plastic island]. The issue of poverty, or homelessness, or starvation, isn’t that there isn’t enough to go around, the issue isn’t scarcity, it’s *artificial scarcity*. We produce enough, but we don’t distribute to those in need. Capitalism tells us that the market follows the law of supply and demand, that the market is simply the most efficient way of distributing goods to a large number of people, but if that was true then with our current level of production we could give every human being on planet earth their own house, their own car, free access to education from kindergarten to university, and free universal healthcare. We could do that at any time, but we actively choose not to. Or rather, Jeff Bezos and his ultra-rich buddies actively choose not to. Jeff Bezos has the power to end world hunger on a whim. He wakes up every morning and makes the decision not to, if the thought even crosses his mind at all. 

 

The world collectively produces enough food to feed all of humanity. In fact, the world produces more than enough food. And yet, the number of people undernourished in the world has been on the rise since 2014, reaching an estimated 815 million in 2016 (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2017). Rich countries not only have problems with obesity, but are also throwing away metric tons of food every day. Private corporations have deemed that food which can not be sold (milk that is a day out of date, tomatoes which are not red or shiny enough, bananas which aren’t crooked enough) is to be thrown into dumpsters, and bleach is to be poured on top so that the hungry and homeless don’t eat it. To not only deny food to the hungry when you have plenty, but to go out of your way to ensure that the hungry won’t even eat your trash, is a barbaric and inhumane practice. 

 

Under socialism, all workers would be allowed to reap what they sow and receive according to the value of the labor they put in, as well as democratically decide how the workplace is run. The workers are the ones who produce value, they are the ones who should receive the benefits. CEOs and other corporate suits don’t contribute to the value produced by the company, and yet they are paid hundreds of times more. For a worker to earn as much as a CEO earns in one single year, they would have to work for 45 years. Socialism puts power – political, social, economic, and financial power – in the hands of the 99%, the proletariat, normal people. In such a system, people are paid in accordance with the quantity and quality of their work; workers are allowed to reap what they sow, to actually benefit from their hard work.

 

And isn’t that what capitalists are always telling us, that hard work should pay off? Jeff Bezos earns $321 million a day. Someone who earns the federal minimum wage earns $58 a day. I don’t believe that Jeff Bezos works 5,534,482 times harder than the average minimum wage worker, do you? Frankly I think the average person works far harder than Mr. Amazon. If you’re interested in what real workplace democracy looks like, worker co-ops are a good place to start. They’re not perfect, but they’re a massive improvement on the average predatory company. I made a video on the subject that you can watch if you’re interested. 

 

Now, as with any term that’s been hijacked by bad-faith actors, there’s a veritable mountain of misconceptions that need to be addressed. Covering all of them would take hours, but let’s take a look at a few of the more common ones. 

 

First, let’s consider the misguided notion that free market policies make poor countries rich. I think this is best summed up by Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. He says, “Contrary to what is commonly believed, the performance of developing countries in the period of state-led development was superior to what they have achieved during the subsequent period of market-oriented reform. There were some spectacular failures of state intervention, but most of these countries grew much faster, with more equitable income distribution and far fewer financial crises, during the ‘bad old days’ than they have done in the period of market-oriented reforms. Moreover, it is also not true that almost all rich countries have become rich through free-market policies. The truth is more or less the opposite. With only a few exceptions, all of today’s rich countries, including Britain and the US – the supposed homes of free trade and free market – have become rich through the combinations of protectionism, subsidies and other policies that today they advise the developing countries not to adopt. Free-market policies have made few countries rich so far and will make few rich in the future.” 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism is a great book for someone interested in ideas outside the scope of usual capitalist economic teachings, but who isn’t sure where they stand yet. It’s also not entirely antagonistic to the idea of capitalism, just willing to engage with the reality of modern neoloberal capitalism and its many problems, so even if you fancy yourself a capitalist, it’s worth a read. I’ll leave a link to check it out in the description below. 

 

Next, let’s consider the myth of the American Dream. Remember, criticizing an economic system is not an attack on a nation as a whole or its people. We just need to engage with certain realities of modern life under late-stage capitalism. When you hear the expression “the American Dream,” you probably picture a smiling family grilling in their backyard behind a white picket fence. Probably two kids and a dog. It’s a pleasant picture. One of stability, contentment, and fulfillment. By definition, the American dream declares “Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” There was a time when the average american could afford a home on a single salary, when we could afford to have children, or a new car, or pay our way through school on a part time wage. Those days are long gone. There are some Americans still living who experienced that reality, and for them it’s often difficult to understand why younger generations seem to have such a hard time when they were able to thrive. World War II catapulted the United States to the top of the global power rankings. The post-war years afforded many white Americans the prosperity we associate with the image of the American Dream. That period began over 70 years ago, and the following 20 or 30 years represented the high water mark for American prosperity. But, as was inevitable, the nature of capitalism began to work against normal people over the years. The average American’s quality of life and ability to afford luxuries, and eventually necessities has been on the decline since at least the Reagan years. In the past, a college degree all but guaranteed you a job that paid well enough to afford a home and support a family on a single income. Even those without college degrees could land a job with a smile and a firm handshake, and make far more adjusted for inflation than workers today could ever dream of. Today, a college degree means next to nothing. As of early 2020, the unemployment rate for new graduates exceeds that of the general population. Among those that are employed, 41 percent of them are working jobs that don’t require a degree. I was one of those people. I graduated from a nice, expensive school thanks to the generosity of my parents, and I ended up selling cameras at Best Buy. The only reason I’m able to support myself now is because I got lucky and the YouTube algorithm picked up my channel one day. I now spend my time actively fighting that same algorithm as it tries to bury my content. Even with my difficulties on this awful platform, I’m still far better off than most of my friends working traditional jobs. My position is not unique. The only people I know who are able to achieve what could be considered a modern American Dream are other YouTubers and people in non-traditional jobs. But that’s not the American dream, is it? The American Dream is supposed to be for all of us, not just a lucky few. If you accept a position in a typical American company, you will not be able to live the life your grandparents did, or even your parents in many situations. Supporting a family on a single income is unfathomable. Paying for healthcare on the market is unfathomable. Even affording the bare essentials like food and rent are becoming a real challenge for millions of Americans. The American Dream died a long time ago. Long before most people watching this video were born. That’s not to say we can’t reignite that possibility, but we need to acknowledge that it doesn’t exist now, and it will never be possible again under capitalism. 

 

Finally, let’s tackle perhaps the biggest misconception of all. Socialism has never worked. This one comes up in every single conversation about capitalism, whether you’re advocating for socialism or not. It’s a knee-jerk bit of propaganda that most Americans have swallowed hook, line, and sinker. First, we need to realize that “socialism,” like any system, is a spectrum. You can implement socialist policies in capitalist countries, and vice versa. To say “socialism has never worked” is just as silly as saying “capitalism has never worked.” But let’s look at some specifics. We’ll start with Bolivia. If you’re an American, the most you’ve probably heard about Bolivia is that their one-time leader, Evo Morales, was some kind of horrible dictator. As usual, this is anti-left propaganda. Morales served as Bolivia’s 65th president, and first indiginous president, from 2006 to 2013. He was democratically elected and well loved by the general population. He is not well loved by the United States. Why? Because he’s a socialist, and tried to free Bolivia from US influence and the control of multinational corporations. During his terms, Morales worked to improve the lives of Bolivia’s poor, more equally distribute natural gas profits, and introduced programs to combat illiteracy, poverty, racism, and sexism. These strong socialist policies led to a period of notable economic growth, as well as a reduction in poverty. Morales is regarded by many, with the exception of the United States, as a champion of democratic reforms, common sense policy, anti-imperialism, environmentalism, and genuine care for the poor and working families. He objectively improved the lives of his people. To the US, he’s a big scary dictator. Then there’s Burkina Faso under the leadership of Thomas Sankara. Sankara assumed office at 33, having led a popular movement to overthrow the dominance of French colonial power. As marxist revolutionary, Sankara was deeply concerned with the health and wellbeing of the people of Burkina Faso. Immediately upon taking office, he launched a massive campaign to feed, house, and provide medical care for the entire population. He followed this with a large-scale vaccination program to eliminate polio, meningitis, and measles, vaccinating two and a half million people in a single week, earning the praise of the world health organization. As far as foriegn policy was concerned, the Sankara administration was staunchly anti-imperialist, and focused on agrarian reform to prevent famine instead of relying on foreign aid. They prioritized strong education, launched literacy campaigns, and planted over ten million trees to stop desertification in environmentally threatened areas. Sunkara appointed women to high government positions and encouraged them to work outside the home in an attempt to reform outdated patriarchal notions. He also had the integrity to lead by example, only accepting a military officer’s salary, and redirecting the presidential salary to an orphan fund. Thomas Sankara’s socialist policies did more to improve the lives of his people in a few short years than most nations do in a hundred. Poverty was reduced, hunger and famine were reduced, preventable diseases were essentially eliminated, education and literacy rates went through the roof, environmental concerns were addressed, and imperialism’s hold on the nation was diminished. What did Sankara get for his efforts? He was overthrown and murdered by French colonial sympathizers. There are so many examples of socialist policies being implemented with great success around the world, and for each of them, the story ends the same way. A coup, an assassination, a fabricated war, American intervention. When people say “socialism has never worked,” what they should really say is “capitalist powers have never allowed Socialism to continue working.” These socialist policies do work. They are incredibly popular with the general population of each country in which they’re implemented, and they always produce outcomes that put wealthy capitalist nations to shame, until of course we come in and destroy everything they’ve worked so hard to build. Why? Because the United States can’t stand the thought of their people getting a glimpse of what life could be like under a more progressive, humane, and common sense system. 

 

So. Let’s wrap this up. If you’re an American, like I am, you live in the richest, most powerful nation in the history of the world. We have almost endless resources that could be used to solve any problem that we face. We could fund universal healthcare (which would even save us money), we could fund climate change mitigation measures, we could fund free higher education, better infrastructure, public transportation. We could end homelessness, build state of the art schools, libraries, parks, and hospitals, we could ensure every American worker is compensated fairly for their work. We could have the American Dream. Instead, all that money goes to the military to fund intervention in other countries. It goes to tax breaks for corporations. It goes to bailing out criminal industries that destroy the planet and the lives of countless human beings. Marxism, socialism, communism, pick whatever scary word you want – they represent the rejection of our dystopian state of affairs. They stand for the expansion of human freedom, for the acknowledgement of universal rights, for kindness, decency, and care for the less fortunate. An America that embraced at least some of the tenets of Marxism would be a nation that didn’t destroy the lives of innocent people the world over. It would be a nation that cared for its own, that addressed the material concerns of the many over the greedy demands of the few. It would be a nation that could truly lead the way into the future. A future that is bright, just, and righteous. 

 

This video would not have been possible without the collaboration and insight of AzureScapegoat. They’ve just uploaded their own companion video on capitalism and alienation. I highly recommend you check out their episode by following this link. They have all sorts of videos with the same sharp criticism and perspective you just saw here. I’ve left links to all their social media in the description below. Help support Marxist voices by subscribing or joining their patreon. Every dollar helps keep the lights on so channels like ours can keep producing content to counter the mainstream narrative. If you’re a leftist channel and you’d like to collaborate, send me an email at secondthoughtchannel@gmail.com

 

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