If any system–or leader–fails to give people the opportunity to improve their lives; revolt and revolution will always be a real prospect and possibility. Since time immemorial, leaders have always used symbols to represent who they are and the lives they envisage for their citizens.
A crown, a flag and even an impressive building are symbols constructed and used by political leaders to symbolise both themselves as well as the nation that they have either created or are hoping to create in the future.
In ancient Egypt, pharaohs had a dual role as the head of state and as the religious authority of their people. The word “pharaoh” itself means “Great House” and is a reference to the palace where the pharaoh resided.
As the head of state, the pharaoh made laws, waged war, collected taxes and oversaw all the land in Egypt–which was owned by the pharaoh.
In Ancient Egypt, the crook and flail were symbols of the pharaoh: the ruling monarch. Known in Egyptian as the heka and nekhakha; they were used symbolically to represent the ruler as a shepherd whose benevolence is tempered with power and might.
The shepherd’s crook was a symbol for the empire and the flail for the fertility of the land. The innovation of the hook facilitated the recovery of fallen animals by ensnaring them by the neck or leg. For this reason, the crook has been used as a religious symbol of care–particularly in difficult circumstances–and is still seen in the Christian bishop’s crosier.
While pharaohs were mostly men, records show that female pharaohs–while rare–also existed from time to time. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra is believed by some scholars to be the only woman who used her reproductive abilities to create a legacy. The other women either ruled on behalf of a younger child or ruled because there were no male offspring and were stepping for the years when there were issues surrounding infertility.
Cleopatra is believed to have had children with two Roman statesmen. She had one child with Julius Caesar and three children with Mark Antony—twins, no less. She then carefully placed each child in charge of a different part of her growing Eastern Empire, in competition with the Western Roman Empire.
The Communist Manifesto
Fast forward a few thousand years and The Communist Manifesto, as penned by Marx and Engels, becomes one of the most important political texts in history. Engels was Marx’s financial and intellectual partner. For Marx, the short-term financial difficulties he faced while writing paled in comparison to the mirror in which he viewed himself as the revealer of humankind’s historical direction.
Marx and Engels were both awestruck by the explosion of technology and production: from the railways, to canal, to mass agriculture. This new system, however, had brought about an unforeseen problem: overproduction. When manufacturing capabilities advanced and things were produced at a more rapid rate; a boom-and-bust cycle was created.
Within this boom-and-bust business cycle, the worker had no say over how capital is deployed. His life and his livelihood were exposed to the pressures of competition as well as to the fluctuations that exist within the marketplace. In this world, the worker became an appendage of ‘the machine’. He no longer possessed the craftsmen’s pride in his work. He instead viewed himself as a cog in a machine where anyone can do his job.
In this worldview, small businesses and the lower ranks of the middle class become a soulless proletariat; especially since their limited resources cannot compete with the capital and organisation of the industrialists. To make matters worse, their skills are systematically rendered either obsolete or redundant vis-a-vis new methods of production.
Communism, as envisaged by those who wrote the manifesto, did not do away with the right of a person to work in exchange for money in order to support himself. In a Communist system, however, the labourer’s output would improve the life of the labourer. It was the extreme concentration of wealth–based on the exploitation of the many by the few–that was the biggest injustice.
The communists wanted to abolish the concept of private property. As a system, however, it was not interested in stripping away the hard-earned gains of an artisan or shopkeeper. Rather, the word ‘property’ was specifically used to express the antagonism that ensues from large-scale capital and wage labour.
Communists were accused of wanting to abolish the nation-state. To Marx and Engels, the unity of the working classes across all countries was far more important. Greed and profit were not the key engines of society; these were symptomatic of a corrupt social system. It was only by overturning the system itself that people would be free. The common man, the proletariat; they had no nation as they did not have any political rights.
Capitalism, as ‘successfully’ lived through in the 21st century, has been characterised by a shift in emphasis from wage earnings to capital ownership. Wealth has become increasingly concentrated, social mobility has decreased and a highly-educated middle-class is growing which is increasingly removed from the working-class.
When the pie is growing bigger for everyone, Marx’s ideas are irrelevant. If it grows bigger for one group–without justified and fair redistribution–his ideas about class and exploitation once again begin to mean something.
While communism as a form of government has collapsed, it did not necessarily trumpet the victorious triumph of capitalism.
If any system fails to give people a chance to improve their lives based on merit, fair play and equal opportunities; revolution will only ever be a stone’s throw away.