Reading the works of Karl Marx is something that anyone interested in the social sciences should do. His views on how society works and the process of economic productions were among the most revolutionary ideas of the modern age. He established the foundations for scientific socialism and made a very thorough description of how capitalism worked. His theory led to believe that capitalism was the economic and social stage that preceded socialism. If one agrees with what Marx says about capitalism, it would be nearly impossible to consider it a fair economic system, but oddly enough, the German philosopher does never refer to it as an unjust system. In fact, he states that none of the exchanges done under capitalism are unjust in any way . This work will try to find out what flaws Marx found in capitalism and if he considered it to be an unjust economic system.
During the nineteenth century, the intellectual environment was influenced by the works of Comte and Newton. Many contemporary thinkers would try to use the scientific language to expose their new ideas, and positivism was a very powerful tool for describing how processes evolved inevitably in sequenced, and historically predetermined stages. Karl Marx´s socialist theory was an attempt to use these tools to create a scientific theory of socialism that would separate itself from utopian socialism. In this attempt, Marx would try not to use moral concepts, as utopians often did when they appealed to universal truths and ideas of justice in order to bringing about socialism and the new ideal order . Instead, he would consider that the use of morality in his work would be a backward step , embracing the scientific language and stances. Marx then would create this new theory of socialism that would reject idealism, which was considered a way to manipulate and control societies, and embrace materialism as its foundation .
One of the central points of Marxian work is its criticism of capitalism as an economic and social system. Marx discovers that capitalism is a continuation of older domination systems, but under new forms that effectively mask them. According to Marx, capitalism disguises a system of slavery and domination by the use of social institutions and a superstructure in which even culture takes part . This is made by making everyone believe that the capitalist owner and the worker are both owners of commodities, and are both free individuals that voluntarily exchange their goods , when in fact the capitalist way of survival is through the appropriation of the worker´s labor power without giving the equivalent for it. This is what Marx calls exploitation, because the worker never receives an equivalent commodity for his labor. Instead, his labor goes unpaid and he only receives enough to ensure his survival and reproduction . Yet, the philosopher did not think this exploitation was unjust. In fact, given that justice and laws were expressions of the economic relations of a given productive system, and that this exploitation was legal and necessary for the advancement and preservation of the capitalist system, it could not be regarded as unjust by it. Justice, according to Marx, is a means of production and its content is relative to the productive system it is born into .
It is held by some that Marx, though he explicitly maintained that capitalism should never be regarded as unjust, believed it to be an unjust system . Karl Marx, in various works, used terms such as exploitation, robbery, embezzlement and slavery to refer to the conditions found under capitalism. It is hard to deny that these terms are charged with moral judgments and that they can be related to the concept of injustice, but in fact, for him, it all depends on how justice is defined. Justice was generally regarded as a universal objective value, based on the ideas of Plato or Locke. This view assumes that justice means to receive an equal value for what has been taken from one, or the restitution of a possession, or the guarantee that an individual can keep what he produces . If one reads the works of Marx while holding this concept of justice as true, one could argue that he believes capitalism is unjust and evil based on how he refers to the relations between owners of means of productions and workers who sell their labor power, but Marx never gives a clear definition of justice.
The materialist conception of society, the one used to construct the ideas found in scientific socialist literature, is used to demystify concepts such as justice or rights, denying them the quality of universality . Thus, the lockean view that there are some universal natural rights and that any state should defend them, is seen by Marx as part of the bourgeois ideology upon which capitalism is constructed . Marx conversely conceives justice and social institutions as epiphenomena of the underlying economic relations existing in any given social system. For him, juridical institutions are just a support for social life, and they surface as consequence from the relations of production .
For historical materialists, the laws and conceptions of justice change as productive relations change. Aristotle regarded slavery as something natural and necessary for any society that expected to thrive, but chrematistic activities were unnatural and evil, thus unjust . In capitalism, slavery is something to be frowned upon but usury is part of the modes of production and sanctioned by law . Justice can mutate from one system to another. One example of these differences in the conception of justice between two economic systems, is found in the effects of the separation that capitalism makes of man from the means of production. In a society based on individual property rights over the means of production and one´s labor, an individual would have the right to keep the full value of the product of his work, and the only way to deny him such product, would be through fraud or theft, which would be considered unjust under such a system. However, in capitalism some individuals can appropriate the product of others. In this system individuals engage in collective labor, while one class uses the same means of production simultaneously, another class owns said means of production, making it easier for the capitalist to retain and accumulate the labor power of the worker without committing fraud . It can be seen then that under capitalism, as perceived by Marx, the appropriation of labor power is made possible without it being considered unjust. Moreover, since capitalism owes its existence to the fact that labor power can be used as a commodity attractive to capitalists to produce surplus value, if anyone deprives him of this surplus value it would be certainly considered unjust .
In other line of thought, the liberal ideas of right and justice come from the assumption of freedom as the existence of a protection from interference from others . Marx saw that these ideas and assumptions were barriers to real emancipation, which he ultimately wanted the proletariat to achieve. Liberal justice then was based on rights of separation and alienation of workers, from their products, their work, other people and themselves , while real freedom was found, for Marx, not in isolation but in community . This makes capitalist justice just a tool for disguising means of domination, making emancipation appear as undesirable. This does not mean however that this justice was unfair. What Marx apparently wanted to express was just that capitalism is not the ideal economic or social system.
Most of the evils that Marx sees in the capitalist system are not intended to be moral ones (Wood). In fact, Marx makes great efforts to explain why they cannot be regarded as bad or unjust, because the rights established by capitalism are not violated by it (Wood). But, despite all the efforts to remain objective and differentiate himself from other utopian socialists, he could not help expressing himself about capitalism with negatively charged words and judgments. As mentioned before, there are terms used by Marx that reveal his own moral perceptions toward capitalism. The description he makes of its conception is an imagery of a terrible beast soaked and dripping blood from all over its body . This description of capitalism can hardly be regarded as objective, but it seems he was determined not to condemn it nonetheless. For him, even when capitalism brought much suffering and misery, it also was the cause of many things that were valued by Marx . For instance, communism would not be possible without the existence of capitalism. Feudalism was regarded by him as a much worse economic system for workers and it was ended by capitalism. The conditions of workers in capitalism are by far better than in any other economic system in the past, even if the burden of domination would grow ever heavier. Therefore, what Marx believed is that capitalism should not be destroyed, but transcended .
Moreover, even the appropriation of the surplus value by the capitalist was necessary according to Marx. Without the possibility to appropriate the surplus value that results from the purchase of labor power, the capitalist would have no incentives to invest in acquiring or creating new means of production, or would simply exchange the ones he has for commodities he could consume . The forces of production would come to a halt, and therefore the coming of communism would be put at risk.
In conclusion, Marx´s view of capitalism put it far from being the ideal state of things for mankind, but his main concerns are not based in justice. Justice, according to Marx and materialists, is something that cannot be evaluated from an outsider´s point of view, but has to be assessed by the people that live under the system that regulates it. It is an institution that reflects the political system that creates it and helps preserves it, making something that can be regarded as just in one system, be considered unjust or evil if seen from the perspective of a different economic and social arrangement. Marx critics to capitalism can be said to go beyond perceptions of good or evil.
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Wood, Allen. "The Marxian Critique of Justice." Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.3 (1972): 244-282.