Totalitarianism and Cold War
When you hear the name, “Karl Marx,” what comes to mind? For most of us, words like “USSR,” “oppression,” “totalitarianism,” and “Cold War” are first thought of. The relationship between Marx and all those things is a complicated one, however. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Westboro Baptist Church (they protest the funerals of U.S. soldiers and LGBT people killed in hate crimes; more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westboro_Baptist_Church (Links to an external site.) ) both trace their inspiration to Christianity and one man, Jesus of Nazareth — yet they each have radically different interpretations of Jesus’ teachings.
There are many different ways of interpreting Marx’s writings, as well. Some have used his theories as justification to oppress others and deny the rights of millions, while others have used Marx’s theories to expand workers’ rights and extend democracy. If one were to, rather simple mindedly, reject everything about Christianity after learning about the Inquisition’s horrors, how white Southern Christians cited the Bible to try to justify slavery, and Westboro Baptist’s hurtful protests, it would be obvious that no real attempt was made to learn about Christianity from a Christian’s perspective, and no real attempt made to look at the arguments for the Christian worldview on its own terms. Similarly, Marx would probably ask us to consider his arguments on their own terms, rather than (in an ad hominem way) reject his views simply due to the immoral nature of his followers and/or governments who misused and misinterpreted his theories.
In this Philosophy class, we will examine Marx the philosopher (he did, after all earn his Ph.D. in Philosophy), although sociologists, economists, historians, psychologists, and others also claim him as one of their own. His arguments all relate to his belief that capitalism as a system has deep flaws, or “contradictions,” that may lead to its eventual replacement by a new system that the majority of the world believes is more just. As philosophers, we are interested in looking at all sides to an argument before accepting it, so I have posed objections to Marx’s arguments (perhaps you can think of other critiques and responses?), to give you a feel for the lively debates that social and political philosophers have on these questions.
1) Marx argues that capitalism is inherently exploitative – that is, the only reason a boss hires a worker is to make a profit off of her/him. Marx argues exploitation is a result of failing to pay the worker the full value of her/his work – and this dynamic, he argues, is built into capitalism itself; without exploitation, there would be no capitalism. So even in France, where workers have strong unions, militant working class consciousness, and excellent benefits, Marx would argue that they are still being exploited, albeit far less than in other countries, like the U.S., with weak unions and little class consciousness.
A skeptic might argue, however: “Okay, Marx, I see how capitalism exploits workers in poor developing nations, where workers are paid pennies a day under intolerable, slave-like work conditions. But how can you say that all workers are ‘wage slaves’ exploited under capitalism? If American workers are really being exploited so badly, then why are they not rising up and demanding better? Many workers in the U.S. do not have unions and enjoy their jobs, respect their bosses, and, in fact, are anti-union and pro-capitalism. So isn’t the idea that exploitation exists throughout all of capitalism really just part of your imagination? Moreover, even assuming capitalist exploitation exists in America, if a capitalist uses her/his own money (capital) to start a business, then why can’t she/he have a valid right to a large share of the value generated from the workers’ toil? Hasn’t the capitalist earned a large cut of the value the worker creates? Where would the workers’ job be without the capitalists’ taking a risk and creating the corporation?”
In response, Marx might argue, “But where did the initial capital come from to start the corporation? All capital ultimately comes from the stolen profits taken from the working class. Secondly, workers do not organize here as they do in France because we have a history of anti-socialist propaganda (McCarthyism) that weakens the labor movement, and we have a more individualistic culture, which is also an obstacle to creating working class solidarity. Third, can’t someone be exploited and yet say they are not? If a chattel slave in the 1800s South denies that she/he is exploited – do you take them at their word? Or do you say ‘I’m sorry, but you are gravely mistaken and probably brainwashed.’ Forth, if a slave-owner during the 1800s saves up his money and buys a slave, does the owner have a moral right to that slave? Has he earned the right to enslave his ‘property’ that he bought? He has a legal right, but a moral right? Workers are compelled to ‘sell themselves’ for a wage under capitalism, a most degrading of practices, but that is because they have no other real option under the present economic system to meet their needs.”
In response, the skeptic may argue, “No one is forced to work under capitalism — no, not even those in the developing world! Many of them are so grateful for those meager wages, because they are the highest ones in their areas. A real slave never consents, so it is truly robbery in that case, but a worker paid a wage works under a contract, which both enter into voluntarily. Such contracts preserve the dignity and rights of the worker, so this attempt to paint capitalism with ‘slavery’ is not appropriate at all.”
Please watch this clip on sweatshops:
In your view, who has the better argument on the philosophical topic of exploitation? Please explain and relate your answer to the video clip, showing you watched it carefully.
2) Marx also argues that capitalism is inherently alienating for workers. He might argue:
“Since they do not democratically control and own their workplaces – the goal of a democratic socialist society – workers now are alien or separated from their work (they build the expensive hotels yet cannot afford to stay in them), from other workers (who they must compete against for jobs and promotions rather than genuinely cooperate with and help as brothers and sisters), and from themselves (as human beings, they are creative, and spontaneous, and intelligent, yet capitalism renders them a mere cog in a dehumanizing machine that they cannot control and that relentlessly orders them to do the bidding of unelected bosses). Show me a truly happy worker under capitalism, and I will show you someone who is either ignorant of what is possible due to lack of education, too defeated by the system to expect more out of life, or someone who has no class consciousness and has confused his/her own interests with the interests of his/her boss, which are of course fundamentally different.”
A skeptic might argue to him, “Okay, Marx, I think you really are projecting your own hang-ups about capitalism on to workers. Your idea of alienation is like those overzealous religious folks who see the image of Jesus on a piece of toast and run screaming that a miracle has happened – it’s there if you want it to be there! For every angry, miserable worker, I can show you many others who love or are at least content with their jobs – yes, even minimum wage jobs! You may have a point with alienation being a part of sweatshop workers’ jobs, but minimum wage workers in the developed world do not have it that bad. Yes, they need some kind of health care system to help the uninsured, and they do need a raise of the minimum wage, but they are not necessarily alienated! And they will tell you that. You may say (I can already hear it!), ‘But they are brainwashed by capitalism to think they are happy, when they know deep down, being an alienated ‘wage slave’ is a miserable existence, unfit for a human being. Every one of us cries out for freedom, democracy, and the full development of our human potential!’ However, how can you read the minds of all the billions of workers in this world? You are only projecting alienation on to them– Marx, as brilliant as you are in some ways, you did not discover alienation, but rather invented it in your own mind.”
Which side of this argument do you agree with and why, when it comes to the philosophical question of alienation?
3) The first line of the Manifesto is, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the class struggles” (p. 182). To break his argument down for a modern audience, he might argue:
“Capitalism has created a class-war between the capitalists and the workers – for a boss to give workers more benefits or a higher wage, she/he must take a cut in profits; for a boss to raise his/her profits, workers must get less or be forced/convinced to work harder (be more ‘productive’). That is why bosses hate unions, because unions mean less profit for the bosses, which is the entire reason to be in business in the first place – to maximize profit and become wealthy. The class war can and should be fought, through union organizing and raising working class consciousness, until a more humane system takes its place.”
A skeptic might argue, however, “Wait a minute, why can’t the capitalists and the workers have the same interests – both want to live in a society that is at peace, so both sides will work to get along. Most people, even bosses, are good people and want the best for society. A good boss cares for her/his workers, and a good worker is grateful to her/his boss for a job. Again, the ‘eternal conflict’ between classes is part of your imagination, Marx.”
Which side do you agree with and why on this question?
4) Please watch this famous Twilight Zone episode, “Eye of the Beholder”
After watching the film, explain first, how this film’s message relates to the arguments and experiences King describes in his article. Please be sure to reference King’s article in your answer. And, second, what is the ultimate philosophical message of this film, in your view?
5) Marx, King, hooks, and the last Twilight Zone episode all speak to the issue of what has become known as “internalized oppression” and “false consciousness.” Internalized oppression is where one accepts society’s view of oneself, even though that view perpetuates a devalued sense of self. Similarly, false consciousness is accepting a harmful view of self, even though it does not represent reality — it serves those in power but not oneself.
Marx argued that workers are taught to accept the belief that they cannot run society, that they must have unelected authorities dictate to them in the workplace, and that they cannot do better than their present situation. King argues how racism can distort one’s personality and succeed in making people of color hate themselves, since they see themselves through the eyes of the white supremacist. Hooks describes how women are taught to hate feminism, even though the women’s movement has given them so much and continues to be needed to combat women’s ongoing degradation in sexist society. Lastly, Ms. Tyler clearly suffered internalized oppression and false consciousness in obvious ways.
Please choose Marx, King, or hooks and explain how these concepts relate to the readings. Please be sure to cite the article you choose in your answer.
6) Please watch these three clips:
a) NOW on PBS | Teen Sexual Harassment at Work | PBS
b) Imus Calls Girls Nappy Headed Hoes & Jjiggaboos!?
c)White Like Me(PLEASE WATCH 19:55 – 36:40 ONLY)
For each clip, please explain how hooks might analyze what happened in each video? Please think about and apply her argument to these videos. Please make it clear you watched the videos in your answers, or credit cannot be given.
7. Lastly, returning to Dr. King for a moment, please watch this short video, choose ONE of the people (besides Dr. King) mentioned in the video who was murdered and explain IN YOUR OWN WORDS — not copy and pasting — who this person was (you may have to google this person’s name if you don’t know), and then explain what this statement by Dr. King means to you (it’s not as simple as it looks!):
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
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