The themes of freedom and domination via the workings of capitalist society express themselves so frequently in the writings of Karl Marx that they permeate everything from the relationship of a worker and his labor to the intimate relationship of marriage.
This theme of freedom first turns up in his discussion of human nature. Marx has a theory about human nature that is in direct opposition to Adam Smith’s theory. According to Marx, humans distinguish themselves from animals “as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life” ( 150). Essentially, he is saying that they don’t have an innate nature, opposed to Smith’s assertion that division of labor arises from “the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech, it belongs not to our present subject to enquire. It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts” (14). Instead, we are all shaped by our surroundings: “The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production” (150).
Marx’s theory might seem more freeing than Smith’s theory of humans all having the same innate drive to barter with each other, since the former optimistically suggests that humans have infinite possibility at birth. However, one can also argue that, on the other hand, Marx’s theory has the human in a position of complete domination by their surroundings and society. There is definitely an interesting tension between being free from any innate instincts but also having your personality and inner nature dominated by your upbringing. Marx would have gotten along better with Aristotle and his “tabula rasa” theory about the mind being a blank slate at birth. Marx would also be happy to know that social psychologists have definitely found evidence of strong cultural influence on the values and behaviors of individuals (though they may not be entirely on board with the tabula rasa theory.) Particularly striking is the difference between individualistic and collective societies. Upbringing in such societies drastically alter the way individuals think about themselves and relate to each other. There is also a study that might suggest that this is due to the different agricultural styles these civilizations were founded on (rice vs. wheat, studied by Talhelm and Zhang at the University of Virginia.)
The cultivation of rice vs. wheat possibly producing two different societies with two different value systems is a great example of Marx’s ideas of humans being dominated by the various forces in capitalism. The entire system begins with self-estrangement and estrangement from labor, which happens when laborers create commodities instead of creating free of need and according to the laws of beauty. In this way workers are dominated by their own labor. In his film Modern Times, a classic critique of industrialization, among other societal forces, Charlie Chaplin has a fun visual representation of this phenomenon. Suddenly people become their work and only have value as a worker, becoming a commodity in and of themselves. This is a great example of how the loss of freedom to create results in people’s domination by systems of society. Ironically, these systems are created by the actions of people, by their lack of free creation.
Marx also extends his exploration of man as a species being to the interpersonal relationship of marriage:
From this relationship [between man and woman] one can therefore judge man’s whole level of development. It follows from the character of this relationship how much man as a species being, as man, has come to be himself and to comprehend himself; the relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It therefore reveals the extent to which man’s natural behaviour has become human, or the extent to which the human essence in him has become a natural essence–the extent to which his human nature has become nature to him. In this relationship is revealed, too, the extent to which man’s need has become a human need; the extent to which, therefore, the other person as a person has become for him a need–the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being. (83-84)
From man’s relationship with woman, one can take away a general idea about how man has developed. The more man treats woman as a person, the closer his essence is to nature, and the closer he is to his species being. This is because he does not treat women like a commodity or like private property. In contrast, if man dominates woman, it shows a disconnect between his essence and nature and therefore a disconnect between him and his species being. In this way, if man dominates woman, he also dominates himself. An example of this is in crude communism, where everything, including women, is shared. This “prostitution” and objectification of women exemplifies crude communism’s ineffectiveness: by sharing all private property the community is still fixated on the private property instead of transcending it. The fixation on private property continues to alienate the community from their species beings, and man is still caught in the cycle of self-domination. Therefore, in order to come closer to transcending private property and living in a true communist society, man must treat woman not as a commodity or property but as a social and equal being.
An interesting place in popular culture to contain a misunderstanding between crude communism and Marx’s conception of true communism is in the lyrics to the (now Nobel Prize winner) Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”:
For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in
These lyrics articulate “freedom” in a generally counterculture, leftist way, but when referring to “them that are free,” he is clearly not referring to those who have transcended commodity fetishism; he is most likely referring to the 60’s popular conception of freedom, with all that entails with regard to stickin’ it to the man, free love, etc. “Cultivate their flowers” may refer to the flower children of this era, which had a direct relation to the free love movement. However, as we know from Marx, free love/crude communism does not escape the objectification, commodification, and therefore commodify fetishism and estrangement he warns against.