~An essay I wrote for my Marxism class back in 2005 that still rings true today (unfortunately)-- of course it had a different title~
By Tina Phillips
When Marx discusses the material conditions of life he is trying to explain the limitations put on humankind to reach its full potential. Marx believed that there was nothing in one’s consciousness that did not come from one’s material conditions. Marx’s beliefs about the material surroundings of life are closely related to the sociological concept of the social construction of reality. The social construction of reality is a theory that says that one’s social reality comes from one’s physical conditions. Marx describes material conditions in order to prove a moral point about how unjust social relations become under certain kinds of material conditions.
Marx says that the first task people take up in life is work for their own survival. People need to get their needs met. In order to do so people must work within their material conditions and work with others to exchange goods and services; setting up a system of social relations. Marx believes that everything must be explained in material terms. Marx thinks strongly that only material is real, and concepts such as the metaphysical are made up to comfort people. He is serious about empathizing how material conditions run people’s lives because he wants people to be emancipated and liberated. Marx believes the only way to liberate people is by getting them to see their material conditions, to see how limiting they are, and to do this as to foster a change agent within them, so that they will seek to change their created reality.
Marx views the world through a system of materialism. Marx explains materialism in two different ways. One is dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism is when change happens only through a process of conflict between opposing sides and that the resolution results in a new form of social relations- a better form. Further, historical materialism describes Marx’s idea of how the social structure of a given society is created by its material condition. Marx believes that certain conflicts within social relations—especially around who are the owners in society and who are the producers—would result in revolutionary conditions. Marx explains that sooner or later the producers will seek to overthrow their bosses in order to change their material conditions—and thus social relations between them—and all people.
Material conditions create the basis for social relations. Material conditions are “elements of the interaction with nature that confront humanity as given, the exogenous constraints to which society must adjust, the physically imposed requirements of individual and social reproduction” (Mayer, p. 28). A material condition gives structure to the social relations between people and defines what these social relations can look like. The current material conditions the United States lives under give rise to massive inequality in terms of social relations and power some wield over others.
One example of how material conditions set up an unequal power relationship in modern America is the means of production. The means of production are those productive forces that are necessary to produce the existence of a human being. These could include: technology, machinery, a pen, a paintbrush, a musical instrument, or any other material tool that could help one create. In the United States the means of production are concentrated in the hands of capitalists, who own them. Marx believes that people should own their own means of production. Capitalists use workers to exploit worker’s surplus labor value in order to make profit. Surplus labor value is “value produced by surplus labor” which is “labor over and above what is needed to reproduce the laborer plus the tools and materials used up in the process” (Mayer, p. 339). This causes exploitation. Exploitation is when one group of people holds power and authority over another and thus can take away the disempowered group’s productive power (to use for their own economic gain). There is an illusion that the modern worker can choose any job they wish when in actuality material conditions dictate that they must take whatever job is available in order to survive—and whatever job they get will set them up as a wage slave.
In addition, in the modern day United States, the system of capitalism has generated a lot of profit for very few people. Capitalism itself is a material condition of life in America. People are forced to be a player in the game of capitalism—and there are many more losers than there are winners. Private ownership of the means of production, instead of social ownership, has allowed a few thousand people to control the destiny of billions of people. Capitalism, which is the process of buying something and selling it for a higher price and reinvesting that profit, is how people can amass large amounts of capital.
Furthermore, globalization has allowed capitalism to not only exploit people of the United States, but people all around the world. Now any corporation based in America can be a multi-national corporation just by setting up shop in some third world country where labor is super cheap. These third world victims are super-exploited. Not only do they work for pennies, they are over worked, sometimes being forced to work more than twelve hours a day and six days a week, and they also face harsh environmental working conditions, which are unsafe to work under. Many of these workers are also children. The practice of getting cheaper labor outside one’s host country is called outsourcing. Outsourcing is a method that corporations utilize in order to get a competitive edge on others.
Another material condition in modern America is competition. Everyone is forced to compete with everyone else in order to survive. Corporations stop at nothing to exploit people and natural resources. Unfortunately, not everyone is on a level playing field either. Some people are born with privilege. Many factors could influence how much a person is able to make. It is also material conditions, which set up this system of inequality based on race, class, sex, etc. In fact, a new social order is being built around the worship and continued success of capitalism: Neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism “wages are driven down, safety nets are being destroyed, regulatory oversight is being eliminated, tax systems dismantled and rebuilt around new priorities, and civil and criminal law systems are being transformed in the direction of removing any government responsibility for the welfare of society and its citizens” (The People’s Tribune). Social relations are being reformed and reshaped as capitalist globalization spreads through out the globe—integrating markets. Economic conditions are giving rise to a superstructure—which are non-economic institutions, which are influenced directly by economic conditions (Mayer, p. 339). Yet these institutions function to serve capitalists, profit makers, and exploiters. The dominant ideology in the world today—Neoliberalism—fosters a worldview that freedom means the unrestrained opportunity to make profit. Marx says that the unrestrained opportunity to make profit is close to the opposite of freedom. In fact, Marx says that to be free one must not be able to make profit at all. Marx believes true freedom means the abolishment of the profit system altogether. Marx believes that abolishing the system of profit would allow people to use their productive force to create and live up to their full potential.
Marx believes the best thing human beings possess is their own productive force. Productive force is “an instrument, raw material, human capacity (e.g., strength, skill, knowledge), or anything else that can be used for purposes of economic production” (Mayer, p. 335). Marx thinks strongly that human beings deserve to utilize their own productive force for not only producing their own existence, but to create. Marx feels that every human being has the capability to produce something of value in society. Not the value that a capitalist market would give something—the value of its exchange and ability to produce capital—but its social value to other human beings. Marx urges people to act to change their material conditions and social relations—so that they can have the resources at their disposal to reach their own full potential. Current American material conditions have served to alienate people because they have been turned into commodities.
Alienation happens when a worker is denied of the ownership of their means of production. When owners control the means of production and also use products produced by workers to sell and make a profit they deny the worker the satisfaction of owning that creatively made product. Instead of creating a product and being able to exchange that product for another, capitalism sets up a system whereby workers get paid a wage to produce. This produces alienation, because workers are no longer intimately connected with the fruits of their own labor and have no control over their own creative abilities. Commodification happens when social relations, products, culture etc. are being bought and sold on the market. For example, a job where a worker produces a table used to be made in the worker’s own wood shop. The worker produced the table and then exchanged it for other things he needed. Now the table is produced in a factory assembly line, where no one person produces the whole table and may never get to see the finished product. After the table is made it is bought and sold for profit of the owner, and does not return its true value to the worker. The division of labor also comes from alienation. Capitalists claim that the division of labor is efficient and produces more wealth for more people, but Marx asks at what cost? Marx believes there is a better way to live and work.
The current material condition in the United States also includes the agent of fear. Marx says that when you live under a capitalist system, you invite fear and terror to rule. In order to keep profits rising, owners have to make people work more for less. This is not usually very popular and citizens may revolt. In order to curb revolts, capitalist government’s must instill fear tactics in order to keep control and authority over its citizens. An example of this is the “war on terror” which was a war created to use fear in order to invade countries and threaten countries into submission to American foreign interests. American citizens are so afraid of being attacked by terrorists; they are willing to be subjected to the removal of their own civil liberties in order to have the illusion of security.
Another material condition the modern United States lives under is mass illusions. The United States must keep up façades in order to convince people that everything is okay and to just keep working. The more society starts to fall apart, the more the capitalist government must expend in its own resources to stop people from over throwing the government. An example of this is the illusion of security. Citizens are told that they are being protected via National Security agencies and Homeland Security, but the truth is there is no guarantee of safety, especially when it spends more money bombing people, than feeding people.
In order to change our material conditions, and thus our social relations, we must begin, according to Marx, to change the way in which we work. Marx advocates that people overthrow the system of capitalism and set up a new way of relating and working with others so that we can stop alienation, commodification, and exploitation, and be free to create and give to each other to the fullest of our capabilities based on need, not on greed. Marx suggests people can have freedom—only when they are allowed to do as they please and not be forced to produce for the means of profit. If people are given freedom to do what they truly want, Marx argues all our needs would be satisfied and people would naturally fall into a balance of self-sufficiency and mutual dependency. People could reach self-actualization and produce for the collective good as well as to satisfy their own dreams. People would relate to each other on cooperative terms, instead of being competitive. Marx suggests that all human beings can fully be realized as humans and live humanely with each other.
League of Revolutionaries for a New America. The Global Economy and US Policy Debates. “December 2004 Steering Committee Report” <http://www.lrna.org/docs5/docs_pol1.html>.
Mayer, Tom. Analytical Marxism. Contemporary Social Theory. Volume 1. Sage Publications. International Educational and Professional Publisher. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi. 1994.