Smith, Marx, Capitalism, and the Self

(Part of the “Self/Systems of Meaning Blog,” by Clara de Castro, Henry Hauser, and Michael Njauw)

Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx focus a great of their work on the economic system of capitalism, its causes, and its effects on individuals. They deal with many of the same subjects, and often come to very different conclusions. However, a subject on which there is a surprising amount of similarity between Smith’s and Marx’s observations is the effect of capitalism on the self. There are also, however, some critical differences in their thoughts on the subject, which reflect their thoughts on capitalism as an overall system. Let us explore:

What Smith says:

At the core of capitalism is the division of labor. Adam Smith introduces this concept in the first few chapters of The Wealth of Nations. He attributes wealth and prosperity to this very concept of distributing specific tasks to various individuals. He contends that this system of production is the key to efficiency, and creates a great deal of wealth for society. While Smith argues that there are various benefits to the division of labor, he also asserts that it leads to a very disturbing fact: the loss of one’s “intellectual, social, and martial virtues (840).” Individuals employed in this system of labor are subjected to the repetitive action of conducting very few and specific simple operations. Smith mentions that in so-called “barbarous societies,” “every man has a considerable degree of knowledge, ingenuity, and invention (841).” However, under capitalism, in which the division of labor commands the individual to conduct unvaried tasks, reduces the individual’s self to a mere automaton – a component of the bigger manufactory. By subjugating individuals into repeating the same action, the same routine everyday, this system renders individuals unable to apply themselves with the innate invention and knowledge that they possesses. As these ingenuity and talents that defines his individuality are not utilized regularly, they slowly become inert. As a result, these individuals become “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become” (840). While Smith completely agrees with the notion of Capitalism’s corruption of the self of the individual, he introduces a solution: education. He identified that most of the working class is susceptible to this syndrome due to the fact that they are “applied to some trade by which they can earn their subsistence (842)” at a young age given their parents’ lack of ability to provide for them. Accustomed to the mundane job that they acquire at a young age, these individual have, in most cases, no chance of returning to their original selves. By creating institutions that provide them with the basics of geometry and mechanics, and more importantly, facilitate the “leisure and inclination (842)” to think and invent, the state can prevent individuals from losing this important part of the self.


This argument of Smith’s – that the government should help provide education not necessarily because it can help improve the economic well-being of the people, but because there is non-economic value, important to one’s self, of this education – is echoed today in things such as calls for music education in public schools (including this one).  While many arguments for improving public schools are purely economic in nature – arguing that better access to education will eventually allow people to increase their income – articles such as this one argue that irrespective of its economic effects, certain types of education are important in helping people retain certain values in a world where they will have to spend much of their time and energy in economic pursuits: in this case, making sure “students see art, understand art, appreciate it.”

What Marx says:

Marx is very explicit in his criticism of the contemporary economic and social structure. The capitalist system that is in place triggers Marx to embark on developing an entirely new system.  It all stems from Marx’s observations of the laborer. A man should live as a social being with relationships to and with other men, and act as a reflection of his own self.  However, as the capitalist worker creates more value, “the more unworthy he becomes; the better formed his product, the more deformed the worker, the more civilized his object, the more barbarous becomes the worker” (73). There is a contradiction. A member of the society cannot be a capitalist worker and a man. To Marx, a worker operating in the system of division of labor and of capitalism is mutually exclusive to living by his own self. The more he produces the more dominating the product and the work itself becomes. Then, the laborer, “sinks to the level of a commodity” (70). Becoming a commodity is becoming inhuman. Marx defines commodity as, “in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (303). The laborer is, then, equated to the wool coats or the pin the factory creates. A commodity and therefore the laborer is outside the species being, outside “us,” as Marx puts it. The worker is being and living to be used and consumed. He becomes simply an efficient means to an end and not an individual with an individual self. In the capitalist social and economic structure, a man must work for subsistence, but as a result, “it turns for him the life of the species into a means of individual life” (75).  The man now is forced to see every individual through the lens of self-interest. Another man becomes only an avenue for personal gain. This estranges the man. He is no longer living his life to realize his self. The labor within capitalism “makes man’s species life a means to his physical existence” (77). He does not just lose the freedom to live by his self; the laborer ceases to have a self at all. Marx puts capitalism and the division of labor at fault for this reality.


Marx’s view that participating in capitalist production leads to the loss of an important part of the self is also echoed today.  For example, in this article, the author laments that “under capitalism, technological progress results in more products, not in more leisure.”  In this author’s view, increased production under the capitalist system does not allow us all to benefit from the increased material wealth being created, but instead simply leads to labor being further dominated by capital.

In conclusion:

As we have seen, both Smith and Marx contend that the economic system of capitalism leads individuals to lose an important part of the self.  However, they have quite different ideas about what to do to solve this problem.  For Smith, there is a simple fix: the government should promote education, and help individuals reclaim what they lose in terms of diversity of knowledge and interests when they specialize on a specific task.  Marx, on the other hand, views the problem as being inextricable from the system of capitalism itself, and therefore contends that the system itself needs to be changed.  These different conclusions make sense given the two authors’ thoughts on capitalism as a whole.  Smith views it as an inherent, natural system that is the inevitable result of innate human tendencies (specifically, the propensity to exchange).  His proposed solution, therefore, is not one of one that relies on being able to change the entire system, but rather consists simply of fine-tuning an inevitable (and mostly beneficial) system.  While Smith views this erosion of important parts of the self as a treatable symptom of an inevitable system, Marx instead treats it as an inevitable symptom of a system that itself can be changed.  Marx, unlike Smith, views capitalism not as inevitable, but as a historically specific system.  Therefore, his proposed solution is not one that works within the system, as Smith’s does, but rather one that seeks to change capitalism to a different system altogether.


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