Marx’s Critique of Capitalism and the Concept of Basic Income

  • Ulrich Steinvorth
Part of the Humanism in Business Series book series (HUBUS)


The discussion of capitalism and its virtues and vices, its development and alternatives, its possible continuation and end, was stimulated by, and suffered from, Marx’s claim that capitalism is doomed. Even the concept of capitalism is under the spell of Marx’s critique, because both the defenders of capitalism and its critics explicitly or implicitly refer to Marx as a critical analyst of capitalism. Yet a reconstruction of Marx’s theory of capitalism that aims at being as true to Marx’s various assertions as possible is of historical value only.1 What is badly needed to orient theoretical and practical attitudes toward the present economies are judgments on Marx’s critique that unambiguously distinguish between what has withstood the critique of time and what has not. I contribute to this task by sketching what I think is the ingenious core of Marx’s theory of capitalism, contrast it with what I argue are his fallacious and politically fatal conclusions from this core, and propose a practical consequence.


Labor Market Industrial Revolution Capitalist Producer Labor Power Basic Income 
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  1. 1.
    Eugen von Boehm-Bawerk, Zum Abschluss Des Marxschen Systems, 1896 [Karl Marx and the Close of His System, 1898], pointed to possible changes in the development of Marx’s ideas on capitalism.Google Scholar
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    Keynes, J. M. Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, 1930, §1, p. 3, called this unemployment technological: “We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come-namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economizing the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”Google Scholar
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    Like many of his contemporary economists, Marx assumed a tendency of the profit rate to fall, but unlike them explained it by the contradiction between exchange and use-value. Probably he also thought that this tendency could be acted against for a very long time if the workers did not resist against wage squeezing. Marxists such as Kautsky and Lenin by their theories of imperialism as a stage of capitalism implied that the profit falling does not allow predicting the collapse of capitalism. Rosa Luxemburg, R. “Antikritik,” Gesammelte Werke Bd. VI, Berlin 1923, p. 411, even said that “we can still wait a good time for the decline of capitalism because of the fall of the profit, about as long as for the expiration of the sun” (my tr., from Nikolai Bukharin), Der Imperialismus und die Akkumulation des Kapitals, Wien 1926, 118. In the 1990s, philosophers with the aura of being critical, such asGoogle Scholar
  4. Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil, 1993 (London: Verso) p. 27, even wrote that “there has been no series of increasingly serious crashes (as Marx predicted).”Google Scholar
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    Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 13; italics his. He says: “Exchange is truly voluntary only when nearly equivalent alternatives exist” (ibid., p. 28). This is hardly convincing; the alternatives of a blackmail threat may be equivalent but the choice is not voluntary.Google Scholar
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    Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 1942,1994 (London: Routledge), p. 139. Yet Schumpeter argued with Marx that the creative destruction of capitalism would lead to its end: the “capitalist process … creates the conditions for… the socialist form of life” (ibid., p. 162).Google Scholar
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    Keynes, Economic possibilities for our Grandchildren, 1930, sec.1, p. 3.: technical improvements in manufacture and transport have been proceeding at a greater rate in the last ten years than ever before in history. In the United States factory output per head was 40 percent greater in 1925 than in 1919. In Europe we are held back by temporary obstacles, but even so it is safe to say that technical efficiency is increasing by more than 1 percent per annum compound. There is evidence that the revolutionary technical changes, which have so far chiefly affected industry, may soon be attacking agriculture. We may be on the eve of improvements in the efficiency of food production as great as those which have already taken place in mining, manufacture, and transport. In quite a few years — in our own lifetimes I mean — we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.Google Scholar
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    On the future of employment see H.-P. Martin and Harald Schumann, The Global Trap, 1997 (London: Zed Books), pp. 1–4. Cf. also New York Times July 8, 2012. August 18, 2012. December 10, 2012. (Available at oblessness/?nl=todays headlines&emc=edit_th_20120709; html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120819; 10/opinion/krugman-robots-and-robber-barons.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121210); Kevin Rafferty on the “hole of modern capitalism,” Japan Times February 6, 2012.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, in Foner E., ed., Thomas Paine Collected Writings, 1995 (New York: The Library of America, New York), pp. 396–413, 400. Paine’s text is available at Scholar
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    Locke, 2nd Treatise of Government §24ff.; Robert Nozick, State, Anarchy, Utopia, 1974 (New York: Basic Books), 180f.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 192;Google Scholar
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  13. Thomas Straubhaar, Ein Grundeinkommen für alle, February 2010 (HWWI Standpunkt);Google Scholar
  14. G. Werner and A. Goehler, 1000 Euro für jeden, 2010 (Berlin (Econ)).Google Scholar

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© Ulrich Steinvorth 2014

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  • Ulrich Steinvorth

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