Marx had a negative idea of capitalism. Though – at his time – globalisation could still be seen as a force that brings change in our society by spreading the ideals of a communist revolution. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, what would be Marx’s view on the global capitalism of the 21st century?
Karl Marx lived during the 19th century and shaped the idea of communism as a political concept with his contribution, together with Engels, “The communist manifesto” (1).
Marx described the world as driven by an underlying force, the ‘capitalist system‘, through which political elites – the bourgeoisies – dominate the social class of the workers, referred to as proletariat.
Marx believed that the elites – the owners – control the production of the workers in an asymmetric and exploitative manner, a situation that confers inequality at the global level. He believed that revolution would be the key to subvert the established system and obtain a more just world, free of wars. Indeed, as Lenin points out to describe the causes of the First World War, wars are merely the result of competition for resources between elites of different countries (2).
In the 19th century the United Kingdom was the world economic leader, mainly because of its privileged position of hegemonic power. Although globalisation was already a trend (3), Marx denounced British capitalism (4) while not having a strong and defined position on globalisation, seen instead by critical theorists as a positive and powerful tool to spread ideas and change the system. However, globalisation as a trend increased exponentially during the 20th century (3), driven by technological advances in transportation, by the communication revolution and, importantly, by the role of the new hegemonic power emerged after the 20 years’ crisis and the Second World War, the Unites States of America.
In Marx’s futuristic view, his idea of globalisation would probably be affected by the evidence that globalisation is and has been serving as a tool to spread a liberal and capitalistic ideology.
Communist revolution failed, both as an ideology and as a concrete action after the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the defeat and desegregation of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Globalisation has been a vector to spread a model – capitalism – rather than the communist ideology. The discourse of ‘production‘, ‘markets‘, ‘free trade‘ won over the language of revolution promoted by Marx and his followers.
Therefore, the spread of global capitalism supports Marx’s ideas: capitalism is indeed promoted by the USA and its allies, which are among the most technologically advanced nations. Through the establishment of Intergovernmental Organizations and treaties such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – then replaced in 1995 by the World Trade Organization (WTO) – or the World Bank, states are forced to join the free market that – according to Marxists and mercantilists – favors large and established industries and companies that reflect the interests of the most advanced countries.
The hegemonic stability order established by the USA starting from the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 seems to give voice to Marx: capitalism is rather a complicated, sophisticated and well-thought way of the elites to dominate the world (1,4).
However, the global reduction of poverty, the rise of a global civil society and of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) seem to prove the positive efficacy of the liberal capitalist system.
Nevertheless, growing inequality underlines the fact that the win-win situation proposed by liberal theory is extremely skewed towards the elites.
The rise of China, India and Brazil, among others, also points out that it is possible to move from a position of underdevelopment to being the second largest economy of the world (i.e. China), suggesting that Marx’s considerations and the ideas of Dependency theorists have been too simplistic, although they have been a decisive starting point for the development of newer and more sophisticated theories. Among those, importantly, Immanuel Wallerstein would probably explain the rise of China – or the decline of old powers such as Spain, Portugal or even Greece – with the existence of a semiperiphery together with the core states, placed in an exploitative relationship with the periphery (5). According to Wallerstein, asymmetric relations are maintained because states belonging to the semiperiphery wish them to be, and these same states have the potential to become new world leaders (new core states).
The structural existence of a semiperiphery, therefore, holds the whole system and – additionally – gives new strength to Marxists ideas.
Consequently, the global capitalist system can be seen as a successful experimentation of the powerful countries in order to maintain their wealth. Whether this negatively or positively affects the system as a whole is – still – a matter of debate.
- Marx, K., and Engels, F. “The communist manifesto“, 1848.
- Lenin, V., “Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism“, 1916.
- O’Rourke, K.H., “Globalization and Inequality: historical trends“, NBER, 2001.
- Marx, K., “Das Kapital“, 1867.
- Wallerstein, I., “Historical capitalism“, 1993.