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In Marxist theory, the immiseration thesis (also referred to as emiseration thesis) refers to the view that the nature of capitalist production logically requires an ever greater reduction in real wages and worsening of working conditions for the proletariat.
Concerning the evolution of the worker's living conditions, Marx argued that:
Within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker [...] All means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become a means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment, they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process [...], they transform his life into working-time, and his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital. But all methods of the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation, and every extension of accumulation becomes, conversely, a means for the development of these methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.
The fact that Marx subscribed to such an immiseration thesis (even though he never used the term immiseration himself) would explain why he was never concerned by the problem that capitalist owners could potentially reduce working hours, increase wages and concede other benefits in order to "appease" the workforce. Instead, Marx was convinced that the very nature of capitalism would render a proletarian revolution inevitable. Ecological economists point out that Marx was led astray by his labor theory of value, which ignores the role that energy plays in the creation of wealth. (In this he repeated an error made by classical economists reaching back to Locke.) With Energy Return on Energy Invested (or EROI) ratios for industrial economies falling through most of the fossil fuel era, it was possible for capitalists to give labor an increasing share of the product of industrial production, creating a middle class, even as their own shares grew astronomically. With the EROI of petroleum falling world-wide, Marx's immiseration thesis has new relevance.
Later communist revolutionaries, such as Lenin, consider other alternatives:
What if capitalism came to be capable of raising the standard of living of the workers rather than further depressing it? A trade union consciousness could then establish itself that was not inherently and irrevocably revolutionary, one that was itself, as Lenin claimed, a form of bourgeois ideology, that is, a form of consciousness that was itself a means through which the bourgeoisie could extend and solidify its domination over the working class.
Lenin's answer was the creation of a party of full-time professional revolutionaries who would constitute a kind of political elite. This elite would then possess a "correct" knowledge of revolutionary theory and act as a revolutionary vanguard.
The immiseration thesis was equally questioned by later theorists, notably by early members of the Frankfurt School. For Adorno and Horkheimer, state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism between the "relations of production" and "material productive forces of society"—a tension which, according to traditional Marxist theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The previously "free" market (as an "unconscious" mechanism for the distribution of goods) and "irrevocable" private property of Marx's epoch have gradually been replaced by the centralized state planning and socialized ownership of the means of production in contemporary Western societies. The dialectic through which Marx predicted the emancipation of modern society is thus suppressed, effectively being subjugated to a positivist rationality of domination:
[G]one are the objective laws of the market which ruled in the actions of the entrepreneurs and tended toward catastrophe. Instead the conscious decision of the managing directors executes as results (which are more obligatory than the blindest price-mechanisms) the old law of value and hence the destiny of capitalism.
- Cf. Marx, Karl (2007): Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: The Process of Capitalist Production. Volume I, part 2. Cosimo Inc., pp. 708-709
- Geuss, Raymond (2004): Dialectics and the revolutionary impulse. In: Rush, Fred (Ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory. Cambridge University Press, p. 113.
- Cowling, Mark (1998): The Communist manifesto: new interpretations. Edinburgh University Press, p. 41.
- Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 38.