Applying the writings of Karl Marx to contemporary American society is a tenuous proposition. Marx was writing during an age, and in a location, from which his perspective was of the industrialization of Western societies, mainly Germany, France and England, and the objectification of labor those processes entailed. Whether the quality of life of the laborer was improved over that which existed during earlier agrarian eras is immaterial, as is the question of whether industrialization was a product of capitalism, which, during the 19th Century, it largely was. Marx could not foresee – or, maybe he could but just didn’t care – that the industrialization of Russia, which would provide the venue for the world’s first imposition of a political and economic system loosely predicated upon his theories, would produce a level of suffering unique in human history. In any event, we do know that Marx did not envision communist revolution in Russia, which he viewed as too technologically and socially primitive; rather, he predicted that it would take root in Germany, where the evolution of economic systems would advance towards the “utopian” society he envisioned in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844).
That Marx was concerned with the distribution of wealth is not disputed.
The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as "an immense accumulation of commodities," its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity. [Das Kapital, Volume One, Chapter One]
To Marx, labor was seen by the landowning classes as just another commodity to exploit for their own less-than-altruistic purposes. As wealthy, technologically-advanced societies like those in Germany and the United States continued to build their economies on the backs of undervalued, dehumanized labor, and as these modern, advanced societies evolved, they would ultimately be transformed into more egalitarian societies. As he wrote in 1847,
“The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society.”[Poverty of Philosophy, 1847]
In other words, Marx believed that it was in the advanced Western countries where communism would take root and grow precisely because capitalism will have established the foundation for such an evolution – and note the use of the word “evolution” rather than “revolution.” The next year 1848, Marx published his Communist Manifesto that, as the title suggests, is less a thoughtful philosophical tract than a clarion call for action. In other words, it was a political document intended to spur action. The problem for Marx, however, was that, while communist thoughts existed among intellectuals and labor leaders in the West, it was in Russia, with its far more primitive society and far lower level of industrialization where committed communist movements grew in number, power and ruthlessness.
Another problem for Marx was the degree to which the stridency characteristic of his manifesto supplanted his earlier, more thoughtful works. It is in Chapter Two of the Communist Manifesto, titled “Proletarians and Communists,” where he most succinctly sets forth the oversimplified and autocratic agenda for which he would become known:
“. . .in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.
1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.”
There are additional measures Marx advocates, but these are the main ones and are representative of Marxist economics.
Now, applying this brief discussion of Marx to contemporary America and the social movement committed to a redistribution of wealth, there is little we can learn from Marx unless one wishes to (A) sit tight and watch the continued evolution of American economics – and we have already progressed beyond the time-trusted map of how economies evolve from industrialization to service-oriented economies; or, (B) radically rewrite U.S. tax laws while imposing far more dramatic changes on existing tax rates than is likely to be palatable to those who have actually earned a lot of money. It is through dramatic increases on the rates at which the more prosperous among us pay on earnings that wealth can be redistributed. History demonstrates, not just in the United States, but in wealthy European countries with high tax rates on top earners, that excessive taxes on top earners results in capital flight – in effect, the rich pick up their marbles and move away to countries with lower tax rates. The government can impose stringent controls on capital flows of that nature, but the disaffection that such policies will engender among some of our most productive elements of society will likely cause more harm than good. The key, then, is to find the appropriate levels at which assets and incomes can be reasonably taxed without undermining the incentive to succeed in business and spurring relocations to those venues abroad that offer lower financial penalties for successful business decisions.
Marxism received the fairest human-imposed test it is likely to receive. Whether the tyrannical totalitarian political and economic systems of the former Soviet Bloc, with the enormous scale of deprivation and suffering those systems created, or the more humanistic and benign socialism that was practiced across Western Europe during the Cold War years, with levels of government control of the means of production vacillating according to which political party was in power at any given time, the results were less than impressive in terms of the quality of lives. Capitalism has certainly not proven perfect – far from it; unbridled free enterprise will invariably result in a flow of high-technology goods to countries that do not have our best interests at heart, and the threat to public safety from under-regulated industries poses a serious threat to our health and well-being. Properly regulated, however, capitalism still provides the greatest wealth for the greatest number of people and the highest quality of living on an across-the-board basis than any other economic system. Smaller-population countries with high tax rates, Sweden, for instance, can institute more socialistic forms of economics, but such models would not easily be imposed on the United States. For better or worse, Marx’s notion of an “undiminished distribution” of labor and the abolition of private means of production would meet a lot of resistance in the United States, and efforts at imposing such a change would not receive a cordial welcome from hundreds of thousands of business owners.
Economic inequality is the worst it has been in about a century. And the inequality in the United States is larger than in any other industrialized country. Considering there has been a relative recession in the United States and in many parts of the global economy (all the while we have seen insane increases in the incomes of the richest 1% and particularly the richest 1/10th of 1% in the US), it seems that this trend of increasing income inequality is just what Marx foresaw as a catalyst for a shift from capitalism to socialism. The "Occupy Wall Street" movement was a reaction and protest to this trend.
That being said, many of Marx's ideas would simply not work (i. e. abolition of private property as described in The Communist Manifesto). However, the class struggle between the 99% and the 1% is similar to the class struggle Marx described between the owning class (bourgeoisie) and the work force (proletariat). It is probably impossible and/or unwise for the proletariat to take over (violently or by democratic legislation) the means of production, but Marx's analysis could be useful in imposing regulations on this wealth disparity. For example, one of Marx's contentions is that capitalism would eventually fold because of this disparity. In short, with the owning class (i. e. the CEOs, top 1% and so on) keeping more an more of the company profits, they retain more and more of the surplus value. To sustain this increase (which has been the trend in the US for about the last 30 years), those powers that be must increase labor production and decrease labor incomes.
The reaction to this trend is not as radical as Marx's ideas but in terms of supporting the workers, it is in line with his critique of capitalism. So, we've seen the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, a demand for the minimum wage to be raised, and for CEOs to be held accountable for manipulation of funds and company stocks. These initiatives are not intended to have the working class take over but they are intended to help the lower classes close that gap of inequality.
Marx also speaks of the alienation of the worker:
The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him.
The commodity he produces, his labor that produces it both become alien to the worker. He is a cog in the machine of production; the fruits of his production (profit) go to some other place (owning class's pockets). So, he is alienated from those benefits. All the worker gets, in this extreme example, is the means to reproduce himself as a cog (earning just enough to eat and live), thereby earning just enough to reproduce himself as a worker. His whole being is structured around making himself into that cog with no hopes of raising above that. Therefore, he is also alienated from his true self because his entire life is dedicated to being this cog in the machine.
So, in modern cases where the worker faces the same rut, alienation can occur. Following the critique of this current income inequality, there are workers who feel stuck, having no control over their lives. This is alienation. This also causes feelings of resentment and rightfully so. Once again, hence the demand for the minimum wage to be raised and any other initiative designed to redistribute wealth since it is so unbalanced. This kind of alienation must be even more exacerbated if the worker is making something that has nothing to do with his/her existence. In other words, a worker making just enough to reproduce him/herself, working in a Mercedes-Benz, factory, must feel this alienation acutely, almost like a slap in the face. (The worker is not seeing the profits and is making something he/she can never hope to own in that current economic structure.)