I was reading Edward Feser’s post from his irregular series “Adventures in Old Atheism” the other day as well as re-reading A Song for Nagasaki by Fr. Paul Glynn. Both of these readings together got me thinking about exploitation of workers and lower-classes in general. One of the unappreciated problems with Marxism is the reaction it provokes against it. That is because its history and many of its tenets are so distasteful, there is a tendency to revile everything including the few areas where it has a point.
I should add here, that I’m just using Marxism as an umbrella for people who generally subscribe or are at least strongly influenced by Marxism. I know there are differences and that their are many other thinkers besides Marx and nuances to all of this.
Part of Glynn’s book mentioned above mentions the thoughts of the book’s subject, Takashi Nagai and his distaste for the Japanese militarists of the 20th century leading up to and during World War 2. The way they recruited poor Japanese peasants into the military and sent them to death pointlessly and poisoned them with a suicidal jingoism should they even consider surrendering. This was certainly exploitation and it was disgraceful. One can believe this without believing some form of Marxism is necessary to save such people; especially since the Soviet Union and Mao’s China were doing much the same thing at the time.
Likewise, many aspects of capitalism even today are exploitative of both workers and the environment too. Feser’s post discusses consumption for the sake of consumption where even a family home is thought of as something to be sold later for profit rather than to be held on to and appreciated for what it is. One can find consumption like this distasteful without believing some form of Marxism necessary as a correction.
There are a few things that complicate discussions about this today. One is that there are now many laws in our society that are consistent with Marxist beliefs in general and that people who would describe themselves as conservative would now agree with. Another is the existence of corporations. Conservatives generally have positive things to say about corporations but as they are slowly beginning to see, they are more entities of the state than the free market. Established corporations actually like being regulated because it prevents or at least hinders potential competition. Yet another is that there has been a genuine rise in living standards in most parts of the world under more or less similar systems over the last few hundred years. And finally, it is worth considering how rapid technological change had more to do with improvements to living standards over economic factors.
Now given the mangled, mess of an economic system we have today, who can really say they are right? We don’t really have a genuinely free market. And die-hard Marxists will always want to explain how hellholes like the Soviet Union weren’t really Marxist despite how enthusiastic they or fellow-travelers often were about them then and now. Something that explains this is the focus on ideas rather than on the culture or nature of the people who implement them. Something that has affected my thinking a lot is just seeing how ineffective it has been to give certain nations Anglo-American style models. They either don’t work at all or exist on the outside but the nation still carries on as befits their culture. Japan is a perfect example as it has a similar Federal government to Australia but it certainly doesn’t look like it.
The intention of this post is not to try to solve any of this but consider the persistent idea of exploitation of the masses/workers/lower-class or what-have-you. The reds do have a point with this and it has existed throughout history. No society has ever really eradicated it. Even today, people defined as the middle are slowly being prevented from rising in what are historically minor but still noticeable ways.
As an example, the average person can not hope to buy a house or piece of property outright anymore. This was once possible but who could now pay hundreds of thousands if not a million dollars for urban property without a bank loan? It is even now similar with cars though used cars can be bought easy enough, almost nobody could from the kind of money needed for a new car. So much now exists on credit and while people can feel like they own something, they are on shakier ground than they can appreciate.
One reason prices are so high is because they are inflated by this increased reliance on credit. If an authority set stricter limits on lending, then prices would come down as a result of the reduction in the number of potential buyers otherwise. I’m not advocating this just pointing it out as a possibility.
Is this modern exploitation similar to the poor conditions of coal miners, factory workers, serfdom or slavery? Not at all but that does not mean it isn’t exploitative. Once enough of the population is under such duress, it is not hard to imagine it becoming worse either.
Exploitation can be taken seriously as a problem without having to propose a poisonous remedy such as Marxism in its various forms. People on the political right shouldn’t react dismissively or defensively to observations of these problems — however comparatively insignificant to historical examples. The society we have needs people to think outside of paradigms of left/right and capitalist/socialist. We neither have a purely capitalist nor a purely socialist system and in any case; culture more often than not, trumps ideas.