Marxism in the Digital Era

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Marxism in the Digital Era

It is obvious that both the economy and the working class are evolving in parallel. The class difference that Marx experienced in his time is still prevalent in today’s world too.


Marxism, to put it simply, is a social, political and economic philosophy that analyses the interrelation between capital, labour and productivity with respect to economic factors. Developed by Karl Marx and further defined by Friedrich Engels, Marxism has been at the centre of many economic theories. Marx lived in 19th century society, and much debate that his theories revolve around the prevailing work conditions, demand and supply of labour and the relative productivity from the labour force of the time. 

It would be interesting to see the Marxist theories if they were based on today’s level of technological advancement. Marxist theory largely depicts human history in terms of historic socio-economic advancement. Marx has described these phases into five different stages, namely: 

Communism in primitive stages of human history
In this stage there are no privately owned properties. All essential aspects of survival are shared among the society members.

Stage of Slave or class society
With the evolution of socio-economic aspects in the society, ownership of private properties starts to emerge. This gives birth to the ruling class who owns the property and thereby germinating the era of slave ownership in which the ruling class uses and controls the slaves for their benefit. This stage is self-deteriorating as the ruling class continues to grow and to maintain the ever increasing population of slaves. This results in this era self-exhausting itself and forces the society to the next stage.

Stage of Feudalism or feudal society
This stage gives birth to many kings, lords, and other form of aristocrats. This results in rapid and increased trading with other nations or states. And thus a new class emerges- the merchant class. The feudal society fuels the advancement of the merchant class and they start to become more powerful by the passing time. Thus, this gives rise to the fourth stage which is the stage of capitalist society.

Stage of capitalism
The rise of the merchant class inadvertently pushes the economy towards capitalism where the entire economy is influenced by the market forces. Private properties or the means of production are no longer in the hands of the aristocrats but it moves on to the bourgeoisie class. In capitalism the working class or the proletariat sell their labour at a minimum wage to survive as they are paid less than the value of their productivity or end product. Similar to feudalism, in due course of time the capitalist economy reaches a saturation point as the capital accumulation overtime leads to acute inequality between the working class and the capitalists. This gives rise to struggles through trade unions, and other form of struggles from the working class against the capitalists. This subsequently results in the working class establishing control over the means of production which can be termed as the dawn of the socialist society or socialism.

Stage of socialism
In the socialist economy, the entire end to end mode of production is controlled by the working class. As against the capitalist economy where the production was the basis for profit generation, in the socialist economy only that much is produced which is required for consumption by the society. Equality will prevail and all members of the society will have free access to basic human needs such as healthcare, education, housing, child care etc. This will subsequently raise the quality of life and abolish the capitalist foundations based on accumulation of commodities and wealth.

Stage of communism
Stage of communism is the advanced stage of socialism. Once socialism flourishes, everyone in a society will have ample self-possessions. Thus equality will prevail and the social class will be completely abolished. Thus, for the first time humans will not be on the mercy of the market factors but will control the productive forces. 

If we are to consider that the theories propounded by Marx were heavily dependent upon the socio-economic condition of the then society, it would be worthwhile to analyse the validity of Marxism in an advanced technological era such as today. Moving forward, we need to briefly look atthe Marxist view on automation and its effect on the labour force. 

It is very obvious that with the advancement in technology, many tasks requiring manual labour will get displaced by automation. It might be a general view that with advancements in automation, a lot of jobs will be lost. However, from the time of Marx till this day, there has been gargantuan advancement in technology and automation; however, this does not seem to have impacted the demand and supply of the working class. This is simply because when one specific job is replaced by automation another job gets created. If we analyse the job market of just 10 years ago and today, there are plenty of new jobs created in the market which 10 years back could not have even been imagined. Hence, the job market is a dynamic field which is constantly evolving with technology and automation.

Marx has theorised that with the advancement in technology humans would be freed from the conventional form of work. Instead of labouring as a slave, humans would have a more creative work of designing and maintaining automations which requires education and creativity. As the machines would perform the laborious tasks more efficiently, humans would have more free time to engage in myriad areas above and beyond work. Thus we may derive that Marx viewed the development of technology and automation as a foundation of a society with reduced labour time, nurturing satisfaction of human needs where humans are accustomed to investing time in themselves in creative work. This can also be viewed as the germination of a socialist society in a capitalist environment.

On the other hand, with the emergence of efficient automation there will be a distinct clash between the working and the capitalist or bourgeoisie classes. The working class would want to establish the emancipatory outcomes of automation, whereas the capitalists would prefer to maximize production to maximize wealth under their control.  This clash can be viewed as a transition from a capitalist society to a socialist society. Hence, in this clash the working class needs political action to institutionalise the emancipatory outcomes from automation which would structure the foundation for a developed socialist environment. Thus Marx debates that the working class must act as a revolutionary class that acts politically to establish a new type of society on the foundations of a technologically sound automated industry.

We have discussed above the Marxist theory on automation and advancement in technology. It would be prudent now to move on to explore the validity of the above idea in today’s digital world. Today, the economy is highly driven by digitization. From production to consumption, everything is driven by digital platforms. 

If we are to consider that currently the world is going through the phase of capitalism, digitization should be factored to analyse the Marxist approach. In a capitalist society the bourgeoisie class is concerned with the maximization of wealth. This profit generation activity largely involves the labour from the working class, innovation or technical advancements and approach to market. The Marxist theory debates that technological advancements will reduce labour time and the working class will be able to invest more time in themselves. 

In today’s fast moving digital world, this debate does not seem to be valid. Capitalism is driven by competition directly or indirectly. Companies that cannot sustain the fast paced competition will be left behind and they need to think about the future. This will immediately permeate to the working class as they also need to update and upgrade themselves with the development in automation to survive in the ever evolving job markets. There are hundreds of new job fields being created every year. For the transition from a capitalist society to a socialist society, the means of production should gradually move into the hands of the proletariat. This does not seem to hold any valid ground due to the evolution of the overall economy. 

This era is considered as the golden age for start-up companies and a majority of these start-ups are founded by the working class who at one point of time or the other worked for a larger institution.  Hence, entrepreneurs are rapidly flourishing. Existence of entrepreneurship is in full contrast to the basics of a socialist society in Marxism. The foundation for a socialist society in terms of advancement in technology and automation is its institutionalisation of the emancipatory outcomes for the working class. However, there is no limit to the technological advancement in today’s digital world. The clash between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie resulting from the extreme class difference is the ignition required for transition to a socialist society as depicted in Marxism.  However, in today’s world due to rapid advancement in technology, this clash seems to be fickle. 

On the contrary, the relationship between the capitalists and the working class cannot be completely discounted under the shadow of technological advancement. It is obvious that both the economy and the working class are evolving in parallel. The class difference that Marx experienced in his time is still prevalent in today’s world too. Hence, the basics of capitalism are as accurate today as they were in the 19th century. It cannot be undermined that the working class is becoming resilient. Technological advancement, as much as it has helped the capitalists, is also nurturing the proletariat, too. Hence, the transition to a socialist society might not be as literal as defined by Marxism but might get developed on the foundations of technology.

The author is the Head-Bancassurance, Nepal at Standard Chartered Bank Nepal Limited. The views presented in the article are of the writer himself and do not represent the organisation he is associated with.

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