Why, in the age of Amazon warehouses, Wales needs Karl Marx’s ideas more than ever

Picture by Scott Lewis (CC BY 2.0)

Sebastian Cooke

Why are the ideas of Karl Marx – born 200 years ago – still relevant to Wales? The question could be answered in many ways but let’s take a look at just one area: class struggle.

In one of the most influential pieces of text ever written, The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels begin the first chapter by saying that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”.

They explain how, in previous societies, two classes, “oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another”.

But modern capitalist society, they say, “has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones”.

Marx and Engels go on to explain how capitalism actually simplifies these class tensions: “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”

What they were saying was that capitalist society produces two classes that are somewhat unique in the history of the world.

On the one hand you have a class of capitalists. These are the people who own businesses such as Amazon, Costa Coffee, KFC and so on.

They own what Marx called “the means of production.” I.e. the equipment required to produce a good or a service.

So, the boss of a Costa owns the cups, the coffee machines, the leases on shops, the branding rights and everything else required for the businesses to operate.

On the other hand you have workers who do not own the means of production. In order to survive they must sell their ability to work to a member of the capitalist class.

But the relationship between these two classes is not an equal or harmonious one. Instead it is defined by a constant struggle.

Strike

This dynamic exists everywhere that capitalism is the dominant form of society. It is certainly true in Wales, and class struggle has undoubtedly had a profound impact on the history of Welsh society.

The miners’ strike of the 84/85 was a form of intense class struggle as one group of workers fought back against a capitalist class who were determined to exploit them and then throw them on the scrapheap when it suited their interests.

Marx was writing 150 years before the miners’ strike but his ideas can still be applied to it. He talked of a “class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital”.

“These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”

The workers who lost their jobs under Thatcher and subsequent governments (not only in the mines but also in the other industries that once dominated South Wales) learnt a brutal lesson in how they are treated as a commodity in the global market place.

‘Prison’

But it’s not just big set-piece battles such as the miners’ strike where Marx becomes relevant. Wales in 2018 shows us why his critique of capitalism still matters.

Just two weeks ago the GMB union published a study where they asked workers at Amazon warehouses, including the huge one in Swansea, to describe their working conditions.

They were quoted as saying they felt like ‘slaves’ and ‘robots’, that it was ‘like living in a prison’ and ‘soul destroying’.

One worker said: “It is an awful place to work, can’t breath or voice an opinion, feel like a trapped animal with lack of support and respect.’

In another passage from the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels describe why human labour under capitalism becomes like this:

“Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman.

“He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.”

The Amazon workers quoted above would likely find more to relate to in these two sentences than they would in reams of company literature which describe their warehouses, in true Orwellian style, as ‘fulfilment centres’.

Luxury

These workers may also agree with Marx when he said that their labour “produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation [hardship]”.

“It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity.”

In the same GMB union study referenced earlier, it was found that across Amazon’s UK warehouses, ambulances had been called out a staggering 600 times in the past three years to attend to issues ranging from loss of consciousness to electrocution at work.

87% of respondents to the study also said they were in ‘constant or occasional pain’ because of their workload.

We should compare this to the situation of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. His life is filled with the ‘wonderful things’ Marx talks about.

But these have not appeared as if by magic, conjured up by Bezos’ entrepreneurial skill and ingenuity.

They are the product of human labour, and only through the exploitation of workers are Bezos and others like him able to live in a state of luxury and privilege.

But this situation has not arisen simply because of the individual shortcomings on the part of wealthy business owners.

Rather it is because; in Marx’s words “…competition subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external and coercive laws”.

“It compels him to keep extending his capital, so as to preserve it, and he can only extend it by means of progressive accumulation.”

In other words the logic of capitalism- the need to survive in a competitive market – compels individual bosses to exploit their workers as much as possible.

Marx did not simply seek to analyse and explain capitalism however; he was also serious about replacing it with something better.

The same working class that is exploited under capitalist society also possesses the unique ability to overthrow it.

“With the development of industry, the proletariat [working class] not only increases in number,” he said.

“It becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.”

In challenging capitalism, this working class has “nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

Crisis

We may be long way off a workers revolution in Wales but there has rarely been a more urgent need for workers to feel their strength and take on the capitalist class.

Marx provides us with an understanding of capitalism which in turn gives us the confidence to challenge it.

His work stretches far beyond the issue of class and touches on all levels of human experience, politics and economics.

As the capitalist system falls deeper into crisis, now is the time to revisit Marx.

Marx200 in Cardiff takes place on Saturday 23rd, June, 1.30pm at YMCA Plas (Plasnewydd Community Hall) 2 Shakespeare, St, Cardiff. For information and tickets please click here.


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