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Bob Burnett

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Roll Over, Karl Marx

Posted: 06/10/11 12:31 PM ET

In 1883, Karl Marx died as an obscure philosopher, but since then he's become notorious. A 1999 BBC poll judged Marx "the thinker of the millennium" but for the last 60 years he's been infamous in America, where being called a Marxist is equivalent to being labeled a terrorist or pedophile. Despite the controversy, Marx's analysis was correct on many issues and his insights help explain America's growing economic and political divide.

Marx examined the human condition from the perspective of economics. An idealist, he emphasized "universal" principles of group dynamics. He was fascinated by class struggle and capitalism. Influenced by Hegel, Marx subscribed to the concept of inevitability and predicted that capitalism would produce class conflict causing a socialist revolution.

Marx viewed industrial society as a constant struggle between workers (the proletariat) and capitalists (the bourgeoisie). He argued that capitalism always produced a small number of rich and powerful capitalists; if not counteracted, this concentration of power inevitably caused class polarization and, ultimately, a revolution that would destroy capitalism and produce socialism.

In the US, the Great Depression produced extreme income imbalance and then class polarization. As a consequence, Marx's notion of class struggle became a hot intellectual commodity. In 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt promoted the New Deal to provide employment and address income inequality. Big business initially resisted but FDR twisted capitalist arms, warning that if they did cooperate with his reforms there would be "class warfare."

In the thirties and forties, the American Left embraced Marxist ideas, but in the fifties Communism and Marxism fell out of favor; first because of revelations about the genocidal policies of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and then due to the "red scare" launched by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Nonetheless, income inequality gradually lessened, reaching historic lows during the Johnson Administration.

Since 1968 income inequality has increased, reaching a historic high in 2007 (the last year reported). As a consequence, the United States is again confronted with class polarization.

The Great Recession has produced extreme income imbalance and devastated the middle class. Nonetheless, despite Karl Marx' dire prediction, it's unlikely the US will witness class warfare.

American capitalists have gained the political upper hand while workers are disorganized and dispirited. Several factors that Marx did not anticipate have produced this imbalance. First, there's an additional actor in the socio-political drama: multinational corporations. While the key principles of modern corporations emerged during his lifetime -- limited liability and corporate personhood -- Marx did not anticipate that corporations would grow stronger, while unions would not.

Second, corporations and wealthy individuals heavily influence the American political process either directly through political contributions or indirectly by managing the dominant narrative -- because of their control of the mainstream media. American workers don't have a strong alternate voice.

Third, starting in 1971 with the Lewis Powell memorandum, capitalists set in motion a comprehensive, well-funded strategy to enhance their power. This included public relations to improve the image of corporations and executives, as well as "disinformation campaigns" about the consequences of corporate policies such as union busting and pollution. Since 1981, at the start of the Reagan presidency, capitalist economic ideology has dominated American political discourse with three malignant notions: helping the rich get richer would inevitably help everyone else, "a rising tide lifts all boats;" markets are inherently self correcting and there is no need for government regulation; and the US does not need an economic strategy because that's a natural consequence of the free market. The consequences were devastating to workers, the environment, and the American economy. Millions of good jobs were shipped overseas and worker wages became stagnant.

Fourth, capitalists attacked unions and their membership decreased from a high of 32.5 percent of the workforce to a 2010 low of 11.9 percent. (The attack on collective bargaining agreements in Wisconsin and other states is the latest chapter in this campaign.) In parallel, capitalists distracted workers with fundamentalist religion, emphasizing social issues such as abortion to divert attention from poor wages and living conditions.

Finally, if Karl Marx were alive today, he'd observe that in America the Republican Party is the political arm of capitalists but there is no comparable vehicle for the concerns of workers -- whereas in European countries there are Labor or Social Democrat political parties to represent the proletariat. Since World War II the Democratic Party has become a centrist Party, "capitalism lite." Because of the obscene amounts of money involved in American politics, Democrats have found it increasingly difficult to take a hard line on capitalism. That's why, with the exception of Senator Bernie Sanders and a handful of other brave Congresspeople, workers have no consistent voice in the American political process.

Marx was half right. Unfettered capitalism has promoted class polarization in the US. But it's far from inevitable that this will produce class conflict, revolution, and a new social order. American workers are too weak and disorganized.

Karl Marx is rolling over in his grave.