What Adam Smith and Karl Marx had to say about your iPhone

Welcome to the first blog post of Caitlin, Ebram, Vanessa and Ethan!


We mainly used this because this guy’s shirt is awesome

Today we will be examining a pertinent theme in Marx and Smith – that of the individual and the collective.


You may not think that your iPhone has much to do with Smith, Marx or the interdependence of the individual and the collective, but the iPhone is a remarkable microcosm of the notion of private property and its consequences for human beings, a conception that both Smith and Marx in. In this post we’ll look at private property, why Marx and Smith have such different opinions on it, and how it affects our society today, hundreds of years after Smith and Marx wrote. Also, I bet Marx would’ve been a sweet Candy Crush player.

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Smith’s and Marx’s differing conceptions of human nature affect the relationship they construct between the individual and the collective. In Smith’s framework, people live in commercial society, where people produce more than they individually require; so they exchange their surplus with other people`s surplus. He states;

“Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society” (Smith 24).

Thus Smith’s free market is an expression of the natural progression of innate human tendency to exchange, from the individual trucking and bartering to a collective system of monetary currency based exchange.

Under Smith’s view of political economy, an innate, individualistic self-interest leads to a society built around collaborative production, collective exchange of surplus, and private property (ownership of necessities, conveniences, and means of production). Thus capitalism is simply a natural consequence of our human nature. The individual incentives that drive labor are collectivized under the process of division of labor and produces the idea of private property.

“But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.” (15).

Smith sees society as dominated by individuals acting out of their self interest (as he states on page 13.) In Smith’s conception of the world, the society is solidified not because of a collective notion in humans but because humans work to benefit themselves.

So Smith sees private property as an extension of this individualistic behaviour, and therefore not something inherently good or bad. It is just a consequence of human nature for him.

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Smith would approve, Finn.

For Marx, however, individuals are species beings; inherently socially connected to themselves, nature, and their fellow human. Therefore his views of private property are shaped by the social nature of humans.

When I am active scientifically – when I am engaged I activity that I can seldom perform in direct community with others – then I am social, because I am active as a man” (86)

Here, Marx expresses that even when humans do not directly interact with other humans in the here-and-now, their contributions to the progression of the collective (for example, their contributions to future scientific research and the research they used as foundation for their research) are a definite social act. Marx’s assertion that being active as a human means being social reinforces his idea that humans are focused towards the collective.

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The species being – human collective teamwork!

Under Marx’s view, the current capitalist system is the result of species beings’ interaction with these three categories under very specific historical and material conditions. Our individual labor is not so individual after all, because it contributes to the total mass of labor-time used to produce commodities, and because it is work done upon the foundations of other species beings’ technological advances. The current system of private property leaves species-beings devoting all their time and energy to producing commodities to fulfill material needs and desires, but in the process of making these commodities to have as private property, we disrupt all the natural relationships. Thus capitalism, and private property, the result of these disrupted relationships, are detrimental to the full realization of species-beings’ potential on an individual (relationship between species-being and self) and collective level (relationship between one species-being and another, between species-being and nature).

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Maintaining healthy species-being relationships are important, but not these kind of species…

Apple, an eminent corporation in the world economy, represents a culmination of Smith’s division of labor. It splits up production across countries and across populations, creating a process that standardizes the development and objectification of labor into a popular product that is sold worldwide. The revenue from those products contribute to Apple’s stock (in Smith’s sense of the word), which is then distributed in the form of wages for the workers involved in creating the product, in the form of rent for the factory space that was used to develop it, and in the form of profit to the owners of the Apple stock. Yet Apple also embodies everything Marx protests of private property and capitalism. The laborers at the base level, the ones who actually produce the iPhones and iPads and other Apple products are the ones who are exploited.Investigators found that workers earn $1.85 per hour and they work for 9 hours a day. In addition, they do over-time to earn more money. Roughly, they make $753 per month. They work in unsafe factory conditions and with wages low enough to ensure that they will never be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor (i.e they will never own an iPhone). Now, we can say that Marx was right when he said that in the capitalist society, people will produce objects that are going to be more powerful and aliens to them.

Here’s an interesting article on the subject of Apple factory workers and their pay:

Article: Low wages, long hours persist at iPhone factory, says labor group

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Right? The conditions these workers face are terrible.

So it would seem that Marx’s predictions are true; workers under a capitalist system are alienated. They cannot afford what they produce, they live vastly different lives from the people they are producing for, and have few if any ways to advance up the hierarchy of society. However, there are several factors of difference between Smith’s world and the one we currently live in. Technological advances, globalisation and growing populations mean Smith may not endorse the incarnation of society we are currently in, since he may have had no capability to imagine us having an incredibly powerful computer in our pockets (which also supports Angry Birds) 250 years after he wrote Wealth of Nations.

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Well, mad stacks for Tim Cook and co…

So be aware next time you head into the Apple store on State, because your purchase – your acquisition of private property – says a lot about not only you as an individual but also our collective society.





7 thoughts on “What Adam Smith and Karl Marx had to say about your iPhone

  1. It appears, as you say, that Marx was correct regarding the alienation and degradation of workers under capitalism. However, an important part of his social theory was that communism is the inevitable result of the imperfect capitalism. Communism has been attempted several times by different countries and has failed. Do you think that Marx was incorrect about this part of his theory (in which case, what implications would that have for the rest of his claim?), or do you think that communism is still inevitable and we just haven’t gotten to that point yet? Our society has changed so much since Smith and Marx that it would probably be almost unrecognizable to them, so it makes sense that neither of their theories perfectly describes society anymore. Smith was wrong about capitalism benefiting everyone, but he remains correct that people act in their own self-interest where they can. Marx was wrong about communism, but right that capitalism is terrible for workers. Maybe it’s time for a new social theory, to describe the radically different technological society of today.


  2. I really liked the article you linked about Apple factory workers and their pay, and especially your comment that the workers “cannot afford what they produce [and] live vastly different lives from the people they are producing for.” For me, this gives a really poignant example of why Smith and Marx aren’t just writing about economic theory, as I initially assumed when we started reading them, but SOCIAL theory as well. Sure, these are economic structures that we’re discussing, and capitalism is a type of economy, but an equally important factor is the effect that these economic structures have on a country (or group of interconnected countries) as a social environment. And here’s a perfect modern example of what socioeconomic effect a capitalist system can have on the proletariat class.


  3. Good comparison between Marx and Smith, but I want to remark a bit on the deeper motives for their different perspective on the relationship between the individual and one’s role in the collective in capitalist society. While Smith does say that private property arises from human propensity to exchange in their own interests, he argues that the interests of the stockholder align with the interests of society and thus the collective and individual are in harmony. Marx’s drastically different view, ie the conflict between the interest of a capitalist and that of an individual species-being, stems from his distinct perspective on what it means to be human. Smith sees an individual as true to their nature in a factory because they are part of a process of exchange, while Marx sees this role as opposed to human nature because it estranges the species-being from their life activity by directing all of their labor into a commodity.


  4. I think it is ironic that one of the most widely used examples of the exploitation of laborers under capitalism – the plight of factory workers in China – is taking place in a so-called communist country. Despite this point, the example of Chinese workers does illustrate the global nature of capitalism. In particular, the fact that Apple’s factory is in China and that Apple products are sold throughout the globe demonstrates that capitalists have been chased around the world by the market’s continual need to expand.


  5. The comment about how the workers who produce Apple products are not paid wages high enough to even purchase and own the private property they’re producing reminded me of how Fordism relates to this social system. I find it funny that Ford’s system, developed in the early twentieth century, differs from Fordism. While Ford’s system led to Fordism, Ford’s way of running business and his role in capitalist society was more humane than Fordism and the nature of capitalism. To my understand from the Harvey reading, Ford introduced mass production and the notion that in order to increase demand for a product, the work force must be paid enough to be able to afford the product being produced. This greatly contrasts how factories are today, because capitalists are concerned with keeping workers’ wages low so that they can lower the product’s price in the market to make their product more likely to be purchased. If they are able to mass produce products that will be consumed by the masses while paying workers very little, capitalists profit in the end. Also, in Apple’s case, their products are not necessarily cheap; while they pay workers very little, the market price of their products is consistently very high and seems to increase with each new product. While the market price is high, individual continue to purchase into our capitalist society likely for many reasons. There’s the apparent necessity to have a smart phone (or other Apple product) because they are collectively popular and reflect status (which reflects a larger social hierarchy) and there’s the products’ use-values. Essentially, the reasoning doesn’t really matter because Apple is profiting either way. What does this say about the individual’s role in our collective society? Like you stated in the blog post, the individual’s acquisition of private property only adds to the collective role that society plays in the individual’s life.


  6. This post made me think of China. China’s factories are notorious for exploiting workers and providing terrible living conditions, yet they are supposedly a “communist” country. I find China a really interesting example of how communism fails in practice, since it is essentially a capitalist country in all but name. Perhaps this is because China as a whole was unable to transcend private property to propel themselves into true communism. I wonder, though, as the world continues into globalisation, is it possible to resist capitalism? It seems like the more global society as a whole becomes, the more the world adjusts to capitalism, even in communist countries like China and more recently Cuba. Like Weber’s iron cage, as time progresses capitalism seems inescapable.


  7. I am really glad you brought up the process of making an iPhone and how it is a culmination of multiple different labors employed. The same goes for a lot of corporation coffee shops like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. The reason they are able to sell coffee at such a low price is due to their unlimited capacity to continually exploit their employees. From the coffee pickers to the sales at the machine, each offering a fair share of their time and labor, these corporations have lowered their wages to a minimum so that the companies may cut costs and derive the largest profits. Apart from thinking about the iPhones that we buy and the factors that go into that iPhone, think about the cup of coffee you purchase and so many other things that come at a low price due to corporations desire to accumulate the largest profit by cutting costs and lowering prices to attract customers.


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