How Marx Presaged Today’s Canada


“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country,” wrote Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto.

I came across this paragraph in Prof. David Harvey‘s book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, recently and the quote from the Communist Manifesto struck me as very modern; one that presaged our current internationalism and the changes affecting Canada today.

No one on this continent has been unaffected by the rampant, unchecked, corporate globalism that has seen thousands of North American factories closed, jobs discarded, and production moved to Asia in order to render more profits for shareholders and bigger bonuses for CEOs. This utterly ruthless and unrestrained capitalism is the one politicians on the right proclaim as the only viable economic policy to pursue.

We think of this as a recent trend, and yet Marx warned about this more than 160 years ago:

…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 civilised 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.

Doesn’t that sound like something written about modern globalization? It’s important to understand what Marx meant by capitalism, too: production and trade for the sole source of accumulating wealth (capital). He wasn’t criticizing the market economy, the buying and selling of commodities, the exchange of goods, and a free market. It has nothing to do with your ability to buy a flat screen TV or an iPad or a $250 pair of running shoes.

I’m not sure what he would make of eBay and Kijiji, but I suspect he would have approved of the ability of the individual to adopt and survive in this sort of commodity market where the ‘use-value’ of any items was determined by a mutual agreement between buyer and seller rather than determined for the amount of profit it would make for the elite.

I was struck by a piece in the Toronto Star this weekend by Thomas Walkom, titled, How to save Canadian capitalism from itself:

The economy is not working. A new one needs to be built.
It is not working on a global level, where the world continues to falter.
It is not working at a national level, where incomes stagnate, unemployment persists and good jobs are outsourced abroad.
As a study released Friday by the United Way shows, it is not working at a Toronto level.
That study makes the point that, even within Canada’s premier city, the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
Experts may tie themselves up in knots over the precise trajectory of inequality, depending in part on what is measured and when.
But the general point is beyond dispute: On its own, the free market is providing increasingly less equal rewards.

Which is exactly what Marx predicted would happen: the gap between haves and have-nots is widening. Walkom adds:

Failing a social revolution (which, I suspect, most Canadians don’t want), the alternative is to save capitalism from itself.

Marx predicted social revolution as the inevitable result of this growing inequality, but in this he has been proven only partially correct, and arguably even wrong at times. Cultures in Western nations have a natural inertia against revolution. We tend to be easily swayed by material comforts and convenience. Marx didn’t foresee the internet or 500-plus TV channels, didn’t foresee pornography, game consoles or other things that distract us from thinking about Big Ideas, let alone social upheaval. A culture that is too lazy to walk three blocks to a store for milk is not likely to rise up.

Marx’s communism simply doesn’t work here – at least no implementation has to date. But neither, it seems increasingly, does our unrestrained capitalism. There has to be some reasonable place between them, some place where capitalism’s more predatory urges are blunted, yet its entrepreneurial tendencies are not. As Azar Gat wrote in Foreign Affairs:

Capitalism has expanded relentlessly since early modernity, its lower-priced goods and superior economic power eroding and transforming all other socioeconomic regimes, a process most memorably described by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Contrary to Marx’s expectations, capitalism had the same effect on communism, eventually “burying” it without the proverbial shot being fired.

I was in a couple of box stores this weekend – Walmart, Canadian Tire, Winners – looking at their stock. Not only are the manufactured goods all imported from China – it doesn’t seem to matter what the brand name on the box is – so are the clothes and an increasing amount of the food. Frozen fish and, more recently, chicken in particular, as well as pet foods and treats.

Last week I saw frozen vegetables grown and packaged in China – a country notorious for its lax environmental laws and excessive use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers that have helped pollute the nation – in Freshco. China is now Canada’s second source of food products, after the USA. As the Globe and Mail warned us in 2007:

“Made in Canada” simply means that 51 per cent of the production cost was incurred in Canada; the ingredients could come from anywhere, and increasingly they come from China. For example, manufacturers can import apple juice concentrate from China – for about one-fifth the cost of Canadian concentrate – add water to it in Canada, and mark it “Made in Canada.”

Trying to buy Canadian-made goods, even Canadian food, is getting increasingly difficult outside small boutique stores (trying to buy local produce in any big grocery store has always been challenging, albeit some seasonal effort has been made). But every box store is unapologetically stocked floor to ceiling with Chinese-made goods. They know that Western consumers care less about politics, less about economics and certainly less about exploitation than they do about low prices.

This is an ironic twist, because in Marx’s day, it was the west using its manufacturing muscle recently buffed by the industrial revolution sweeping Europe to forcefully break into the Chinese market:

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. 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 bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

So one can argue that the current Chinese dominance of our own production is simply pay back. Tit for tat. They adopted and used our own methods against us, very effectively too. With low prices come low wages: we have created a culture that can’t afford nationally or locally-made goods.

China, and to some degree Russia, have become what seems a contradiction of ideologies: an authoritarian capitalist state. And like it does here, the profits go to the elite, not the masses.

But Marx and Engels suggested that it wasn’t merely a trend in material goods, but also a trade in intellectual property that comes with globalism:

And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

China has long been known as a source of pirated software and DVDs, as well as patent and copyright theft. But I think, after reading about reaction to Stephen Harper’s Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terror bill, I think we are adopting too many intellectual and political ideas from China as well – and becoming an increasingly dictatorial, authoritarian state along their model. I don’t think it’s so much Harper’s personal ideology as a Conservative trend the party absorbed from the right in the USA, but he’s certainly the poster boy for that kind of leadership.

In late 2014, Gavin Boutroy wrote in the McGill Daily:

Stephen Harper has introduced a nasty brand of politics into Canada. What I’ll call the Harper method consists partly of the typical neoconservative taste for authoritarianism, which includes things like encouraging people to be apathetic about federal politics, and also treating democracy as a game in which you cheat as much as possible.

There has been considerable comment in media and online about Harper’s authoritarian tendencies ever since he took office. Writing for National Newswatch, Don Lenihan penned a piece called, Harper has not made politics more conservative, but more authoritarian:

…a change in our political culture is underway, but it is not about creeping conservatism so much as creeping authoritarianism…

Fredrich Engels, Marx’s collaborator and lifelong friend wrote a postscript in 1891 to a piece on the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Commune that, while not entirely accurate today does paint a picture of political strife we can still recognize in the Canadian and American political landscapes:

Nowhere do “politicians” form a more separate, powerful section of the nation than in North America. There, each of the two great parties which alternately succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions… we find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends-and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality dominate and plunder it.

Harper’s adoption and spread of authoritarian methods of governance is also somewhat ironic, since in China, there are definite signs of openness and participatory deliberation of late, albeit not what we would consider an open, inclusionary democratic discussion (although others observers disagree and say China is becoming more authoritarian and repressive).

To our media, Harper seems more and more like Kim Jong Un than a democratically elected leader: increasing his grip on power and setting an uncomfortable, authoritarian precedent for Canadian politics. As an article in Foreign Affairs noted in 2007:

Authoritarian capitalist states, today exemplified by China and Russia, may represent a viable alternative path to modernity, which in turn suggests that there is nothing inevitable about liberal democracy’s ultimate victory — or future dominance.


I am not trying to promote Marx’s ideology, just understand it, especially his insight into economics, but one cannot easily extricate that from his politics. And in attempting to understand, one has to acknowledge that Marx was prescient about a lot of things. He was writing in the mid-late 19th century, and much has changed, so it’s not all relevant: one cannot blithely adopt all of his ideas in today’s world unchanged.

But that doesn’t mean they are wrong or irrelevant. And certainly his approach to dialectics still has a role in our methods of understanding and debate.

He had what strikes me uncomfortably as an authoritarian streak, too – the dictatorship of the proletariat and all that suggests – despite other comments he made on the necessary democratization of bureaucracy:

The deputies of civil society are a society which is not connected to its electors by any ‘instruction’ or commission. They have a formal authorization but as soon as this becomes real they cease to be authorized. They should be deputies but they are not.  A material contradiction. In respect to actual interests . . . Here we find the converse. They have authority as representatives of public affairs, whereas in reality they represent particular interests.
Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of State

Yet, as Mary Gabriel wrote for CNN in 2011, Marx also left a positive legacy often overlooked:

Today, many people know Marx only through the crimes of the former communist countries. But Marx’s ideas also helped give birth to mainstream political parties in Western Europe — Britain’s Labour Party, Spain’s Socialist Party, France’s Socialist Party, and Germany’s Social Democratic Party. And yet, for some reason in America, these parties are generally not considered part of Marx’s legacy.

Unfortunately for history, his ideas were remade and perverted in the 20th century by followers and interpreters like Lenin, and widely demonized by the right everywhere, often rejected without understanding. But you can’t blame Marx for the Soviets any more than you can blame Nietzsche for the Nazis. Like Darwin, Marx was looking for underlying mechanisms and causes; the processes that led us to where we are today.

Marx told us that things were in a constant state of change, even struggle, and he believed that the struggle was one of the prime dynamics that created societies.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois 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, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Is that still true, or was it ever really true here? Political movements tend to surge and vanish in the West, not sustain a long-term force. The Occupy Wall Street and Idle No More movements made me think for a while change might happen from their protests, but both have since died down, almost disappearing from the media forefront. Are they still active, still to be reckoned with? I don’t know, but it doesn’t look like it. Perhaps like so many other social movements, they lost steam and their followers went back to their Playstations and X-Boxes.

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One comment

  1. Two interesting pieces about capitalism, albeit American capitalism:

    First a review of THE AGE OF ACQUIESCENCE,The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power from the Washington Post:

    Then a piece from Salon titled, “Our jobs just make us sad: How the 1 percent crushed America’s spirit and drained our souls”…

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