The Communist Manifesto

by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx

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What does the quote "is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the power of the nether world he has called by his spells" mean in The Communist Manifesto?

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This quote is comparing capitalism to a spellcaster who has used spells too powerful to control once they've been spoken.

The implication is that even people who have control and think that they're capable of managing things can lose control and incite chaos. The modern society that Marx is writing...

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about has lost its ability to control and maintain the status quo. He says that the bourgeois society can't stay static; in the past, society has experienced great upheavals during times of commercial crisis, and more of these are inevitable.

Marx believes that the inevitable outcome of this loss of control is an overthrow of the current system that makes way for communism. Everything else, to him, is simply a phase that must be passed through to reach the end result.

Capitalism and the society that supports it are the sorcerer, and the spells are the increase in production, industry, commerce, and finding new markets. The sorcerer has lost control of these and has put himself—society—into a never-ending spiral that requires more consumption and more labor until there is nothing left for it to devour.

The money that supports the means of production decides what direction society goes in, but that doesn't always mean good things for the people in that society or the economic cycle itself. The people who control that money are losing control of the very system they're supposed to own.

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Marx believes that the world runs according to immutable laws of history that no individual or group of individuals could control.

Marx first states that feudalism was displaced by capitalism because feudalism, as a system of organizing the economy, was a drag on production: it was like binding people in handcuffs. People needed to burst these handcuffs "asunder," and they did—despite the efforts of the powerful landed aristocrats to hold the old order in place.

In a similar vein, capitalism has grown too big and complicated to be controlled any longer by its owners. The extremely wealthy owners of vast industrial conglomerates are like magicians ("sorcerers") who have conjured up "spells." At first, these spells work to their benefit and the magicians are sure they can keep them under control. However, that proves to be not the case: they have brought up forces from the "nether" world—the dark side—that can't be stopped. Marx points to the periodic market crashes that occur as a symptom of this lack of control. capitalism produces and produces until it has too many supplies to sell. These can't be sold, so more can't be produced, and the whole system collapses. The only way capitalists can get beyond this problem of supply is to open up new markets and more fully exploit old ones. So far this has worked, but it can't go on forever—there is a limit both to new markets and to how much can be wrung out of old ones—so like feudalism, capitalism will become a "fetter" that has to be broken. Then a new order will arise.

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If you've ever seen the Walt Disney film Fantasia, you'll doubtless remember Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer's apprentice, setting a mop to work with a magic spell only for the mop to get out of control and start going completely haywire. Without wishing to oversimplify matters, that's kind of like what Marx and Engels are getting at here in relation to the capitalist system.

They argue that capitalism—rather like Mickey Mouse's mop—has developed a momentum all of its own. As such, things have got to the stage where capitalists no longer control capitalism, but capitalism controls them.

In the ultimate example of the tail wagging the dog, the constant need for profit puts the capitalist system on the road to ruin, as the dynamics of the system cannot be sustained indefinitely. Ever-increasing profits can only be sustained for so long; after that, capitalism is on borrowed time, undermined from within by its own contradictions.

Before long, the system, which has withstood many crises in the past, will experience one last major crisis that will lead to a proletarian revolution, destroying capitalism once and for all and replacing it with a system of communism.

The bourgeoisie, who created capitalism (the sorcerers, if you like), have been buried by their own system. For a while, it seemed that their magic spell would never be broken and that they would keep on controlling the system for their own benefit, thus cementing their social and political dominance for the duration.

But once capitalism takes on a life of its own, again like Mickey Mouse's mop in Fantasia, it cannot be controlled, even if the bourgeoisie want to, even when it becomes blindingly obvious that capitalism's many internal contradictions will lead to its destruction and the elimination of the bourgeoisie as society's dominant class.

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At this stage in the Marx/ Engels work, the assertion being made is that capitalism is similar to a "runaway train."  Marx and Engels argue that at a certain point, capitalism's emphasis on money and the acquisition of material wealth creates a setting where individuals are no longer in control of their own sense of autonomy.  Rather, they are motivated by greed and wanton desire for wealth.  Money and the appropriation of wealth are limitless.  The industrialist can own ten factories.  Yet, they can always own twenty, and thirty, and so on.  There is no demarcation for an end point because profit and material acquisition will never cease.  At this point, capitalism is beyond human control.  Rather, it controls human beings, and similar to a situation where "the hunter becomes the hunted, a scenario results where the sorcerer is no longer albeit control the power cast by his spells."  Marx and Engels argues that any economic system that compels individuals to utilize their freedom in a manner that actually results in a decrease of autonomy and control is one that must be feared, or rejected outright.

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