Marx was a critic above all else. His most comfortable intellectual stance was criticism -- most of the subtitles of his works involve the word "critique". He was, of course, a critic of other thinkers --Proudhon, Smith, Bakunin, for example. And here, the key to criticism is the unearthing of indefensible intellectual presuppositions. But even more importantly, he was a critic of the society he observed around him. The key here is to uncover systemic features of a given society that are fundamentally inconsistent with important human values. His earliest social criticism took its aim at the German society he inhabited in the 1830s and 1840s. But it is his critique of modern capitalist society that is the most enduring, and this critique took shape through his observations of the society and economy of Great Britain in the 1850s and 1860s.
I think that Marx's critique of 19th-century capitalist society can be summarized in three words: exploitation, domination, and alienation. These are simple ideas, but they invoke large and somewhat separate theories. The first has to do with economic relations in capitalism, in which one group extracts wealth from the work of another group. The second has to do with political relations in which one group has the power to compel subordination on the part of another group. And the third has to do with consciousness and the social psychology of the members of capitalist society.
You might say that it is the work of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 to address the first set of questions. Capitalism depends on free labor and freedom of property; it depends on a system of free exchange; so how can exploitation take place? The exploitation inherent in slavery or feudalism is apparent in the formal legal and political relations of those regimes: slaves and serfs are compelled to transfer part of the product of their labor to the masters through a juridical regime enforcing inequality. But how does this work in the system of free exchange in capitalism? Marx's answer, briefly, is that the privilege of ownership of the means of production allows owners to set the wage at a level that permits the creation of a profit; this profit is a form of surplus value.
Marx's political writings, and his writings about power within capitalism, are less systematic. But in his writings about French politics and the revolution of 1848 he expresses some of his ideas about how domination works through a political system (Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The Civil War in France: The Paris Commune). And in Capital he offers a vivid description of the social power wielded by the capitalist (link).
On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.
Marx's writings about alienation are among his earliest writings. The most systematic exposition occurs in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he describes the social consciousness associated with the "modern" factory system. The worker is separated from the product; he is separated from the process; and he is separated from his own essence, his creative capacity for invention and creative labor. Here are a few representative passages (link).
We proceed from an actual economic fact.
The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.
This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.
All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.
Estranged labor turns thus:
(3) Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.
(4) An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man. What applies to a man’s relation to his work, to the product of his labor and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labor and object of labor.
In fact, the proposition that man’s species-nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man’s essential nature.
The estrangement of man, and in fact every relationship in which man [stands] to himself, is realized and expressed only in the relationship in which a man stands to other men.
Each of these theories highlights a different dimension of the social reality of modern society, in Marx's worldview. Each implies a positive theory of a good society; it is one that emphasizes a kind of human equality, and a positive view of society as an environment that enables the full development of each as a condition of the full development of all. So equality and the fullness of human flourishing are the underlying values.
Finally, there are systemic connections among the three areas. It takes power to sustain an exploitative system; so exploitation and domination are interlinked. A specific group of individuals are privileged by both systems; and Marx has a subtle view of the ways in which the propertied classes wield power through a group of power specialists. Alienation, finally, is a predictable consequence of the circumstances of life created by the social relations of exploitation and domination. There is the alienation of the worker; but there is also the alienation of the consumer and the voter, each carried along by a system of activity that frustrates real human engagement and satisfaction.
Does any of this seem relevant in the contemporary world? The inequalities we see in the current economy certainly suggests the idea of exploitation of someone; wealth is being created and a large proportion of it is flowing to a small privileged group. Power is visibly concentrated in contemporary society -- whether it comes to legislation, regulation, or the influence of the media. This implies a degree of domination on the part of a small segment of society -- a "ruling elite". And few would doubt that there seems to be a growing sense of value-less-ness in contemporary society -- a condition strikingly like what Marx described as alienation. So it certainly seems timely for all of us to sharpen our critical skills and help figure out what we need to do to create the foundations of a more just and more humanly satisfying social order.
This is a short posting about a large subject. Is it possible to argue that these few paragraphs capture the heart of the view? Could Marx have formulated his key ideas in a posting in the New York Herald Tribune? Essentially, I'd like to argue yes. Much of Marx's work takes the form of detailed discovery of the facts that make this case and an unconvincing effort to formulate a mathematical economic theory, the labor theory of value. But what is probably of the greatest value today are the dimensions of social criticism outlined here, not the economic theory.