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Review of Karl Marx’s article Capital
Capital, published in 1867 instantly made its mark as one of Karl Marx’s most ‘detailed critique of economic life.’ (Rivikin & Ryan, 665, 2004) In his article, Marx not only highlights that we ‘fetishize the objects that appeal most immediately to our senses’, (Rivikin & Ryan, 665, 2004) but he also argues that we ignore the real exploitation of the workers who provide these commodities on the marketplace.
In his article, Marx illuminates how the capitalist economic system structures human society. One of the ideas that he puts forward is how the relationship between ‘satisfying human wants’ for the value of a commodity contrasts with the invisible exploitation of labour. He states that man easily ‘changes the forms’ of the commodities in order to be ‘useful to him’, therefore demonstrating how the bourgeoisie owns the means of production thus highlighting how they are only interested in producing the maximum surplus value to suit their needs. Furthermore, Marx describes the capitalist as an ‘enigmatical character’ which further suggests they have the power and control over the world’s natural, economic and human resources to take advantage of the product of labour, as soon as it takes the ‘form of commodities’ which is of high value.
Another idea put forward by Marx is the contrast between the social relations and the technical relations of production. Firstly, Marx states ‘their own labour is presented to them as a social relation’ which is of importance as it means it is the people who are associated to a relatively stable economic structure. However, Marx goes on to say the producer’s labour only exists ‘between the product of their labour’ which implies it is now the people that relate to objects; thus highlighting how the result of production determines your social class. In addition, he states that the qualities of the products of labour are ‘perceptible and imperceptible’ which links back to the idea of how we are not only ignorant to the producers of commodities but this opens up to the alienation of social relations.
Following on from this idea, the social relations become less apparent as Marx argues that the value relation between the products of labour has ‘no connection with their physical properties’. Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism is highlighted here as it transforms how the production of commodities and money are exchanged in the market trade through secretly hiding the fact that someone was exploited to produce that value of commodity. Furthermore, Marx continues to illuminate the human alienation of the capitalist structure as he states man is drawn into this concept by ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things’. Marx believes that through reification, these commodities now seen as objects obscure the economic exploitation of the labourer’s (subjects) wages and the new value of product created by the worker themselves.
In his article, Marx cleverly underpins how we are ignorant to the inefficient and exploitive system with the analogy of the ‘act of seeing’. He argues that from the ‘external object to the eye’, we see an ‘actual passage of light from one thing to another’, which implies the exploitation of labourer’s is not invisible; but we just choose not to see it as we live in a controlled society. In his article Marx demonstrates a contrast between the social and technical relation production and from this light analogy we can argue that there is a need for social dependency that capitalism feeds off; in order for economic power to overrule all political and social activities. Furthermore, the value of capital would deteriorate if labour is removed from the workplace, thus highlighting how the bourgeoisie are in effect dependent upon the proletariat labour-power.
In his text, Marx also puts forward a philosophical concept which brings about the theory of alienation of the capitalist system. The analogy of the ‘mist-enveloped regions of the religious world’ is a highly effective idea as it illuminates that Christianity and the concept of God estranges the natural characteristics of our human desires. Marx essentially made use of Charles de Brosses concept of fetishism through his The Cult of Fetish Gods (1760) which suggests a materialist theory of the origin of religion which developed the idea of commodity fetishism. Marx gives reference to ‘men’s hands’ which arguably suggests that the whole system is corrupt as commodities are seen as more valuable than the labourer who produced it. Marx concludes with ‘This I call Fetishism’ which emphasises and summarises how unfair and corrupt the capitalist system works.
Word count: 748
Marxism applied to Raymond Carver’s poem Shiftless
There are many subtle concepts of Marxism found in Raymond Carver’s poem Shiftless, published in 1985. The first few lines highlight the idea that everything is masked in the capitalist system of control. He states the people who were higher up the social ladder ‘were comfortable’ (1) who were fortunate to live in ‘painted houses with flush toilets’ (2) and ‘drove cars whose year and make were recognizable’ (3). From the description given, the materialist goods illuminate the idea of conspicuous consumption; they purchase these costly good and publicly display them to impress people with their wealth of economic power.
Furthermore, this idea of ‘painted houses’ could be symbolic for the fact that commodity fetishism is active as it shows these material commodities are of greater value than those who produced it. Also, ‘painted’ links in with Marx’s idea of how we are ignorant to acknowledge the exploitation of labourer’s. These material goods also link in with Marx’s idea of ‘satisfying human wants’ from his chapter on Capital. The consumer aspires to have the best of the best commodities in order to gain social, economic and cultural prestige. Marx argues in his chapter on The German Ideology that ‘those who lack the means of production are subject to it.’ (Rivkin & Ryan, 2004, 656) This means depending on where you stand on the ladder of the capitalist system, you are put in a social class depending on the amount of means of production. Carver continues with ‘The ones worse off were sorry’ which links in with Marx’s theory of how the working class are exploited and it further attacks the unfair capitalist market system.
Carver gives reference to ‘strange cars’ and ‘dusty yards’ (5) to juxtapose the material goods in the first three lines. The poet cleverly shows the distinction between the value of commodities and the social classes in just one line. This links in with Marx’s alienation theory of the effect of the capitalist production on labourers. These material objects are there in the poem so that the reader can identify the clear contrast in social class; however those who are subject to it are under the false consciousness as it is the way a capitalist society works. According to Bertell Ollman, he argues that all classes are under some form of alienation, but it is ‘the proletariat’s affliction is the most severe.’ (Ollman, 2014) Following this idea, we can see the contrast of material commodities given in Shiftless, which highlights the exploitation of labour. The reference to ‘dusty yards’ suggests the capitalist system dominates the history of class struggle and the poem reflects the poverty that the proletariat undergo.
In his poem, Carver cleverly represents his own opinion of life to mock the capitalist system of control as he stats ‘My goal was always / to be shiftless. I saw the merit in that.’(8 & 9) The poet Jim McGarrah states that ‘This constant state of flux and the battle for economic stability began to take a toll on Carver’s personal life’ (McGarrah, 2009) which highlights the domineering effect of the capitalist control. The idea of ‘doing nothing’ (11) links in with Marx’s view of ideology and how ideology is part of everyday reality. Terry Eagleton, a literary theorist, argues that ‘people invest in their own unhappiness’ (Eagleton, 1991, 13) which suggests why Carver experiences simple activities in the poem. The word ‘Spitting.’ (15) is positioned on its own to perhaps emphasise how this shiftless behaviour is seen to be more appealing than being a subject to an exploitive system where commodities are of more value.
Marx uses a philosophical analogy of how the natural characteristics of human behaviour is estranged due to them being subjective to an ideological apparatus of a higher system; God in the religious world. Carver challenges this interpellation procedure by stating in the final two lines ‘“Don’t I know you?” / Not, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”’ Carver highlights how controlled society is as everyone believes they have to be ‘something’ or ‘someone’ in order to attain social prestige. The pressure of a good reputation and a social status is what forces us into the idea of having to have the best commodities that we either buy or own in order to communicate a sense of social prestige.
This poem highlights Marxist theoretical concepts in order to highlight how exploitive, alienating and inefficient the capitalist system is.
Word count: 740
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