Shopping with Marx and Spencer

Shopping with Marx and Spencer
Christian Fuchs

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) not only have in common that they were 19th century contemporaries and philosophers. They are also buried close to each other on Highgate Cemetery in North London. So one can wonder about the relationship of Marx & Spencer. One obvious linguistic parallel comes immediately to mind, namely Marks & Spencer, a British retailer of food and clothes.

Shopping is the realisation process of value, where the economic value created by labour and contained in commodities is turned into monetary profits. There is no shopping without markets, consumer society, and advertising. In contemporary society, shopping is more than this – it is a lifestyle and mode of cultural control, as symbolised by the shopping mall. Capitalism tries to turn all aspects of our life into a huge shopping mall.

When thinking of shopping, price competition immediately comes to mind. The one who exploits labour most extensively and intensively sets the price level in competition and compels others to produce below the average value of commodities and to therefore reduce wages. The iron law of competition is that it necessitates an extension and intensification of the exploitation of labour.

Marx and Spencer had opposite assessments of competition. Whereas Marx was the fiercest critic of capitalism and a communist, Spencer celebrated competition and war and was the founder of Social Darwinism.



















Spencer saw “survival of the fittest” as the foundational principle of nature and any society:

“As carried on throughout the animate world at large, the struggle for existence has been an indispensable means to evolution. Not simply do we see that in the competition  among individuals of the same kind, survival of the fittest,  has from the beginning furthered production of a higher type;  but we see that to the unceasing warfare between species is  mainly due both growth and organization. Without universal conflict there would have been no development of the active powers. […] Similarly with social organisms. We must recognize the truth that the struggles for existence between societies have been instrumental to their evolution”.

Spencer stresses the evolutionary necessity of war, markets, and competition. Humans, groups and societies who are not strong enough cannot expect help by others – they are bound to die. For Spencer this is simply a law of nature in any society and not a historical feature of all class societies.



















Marx in contrast sees market competition as a destructive historical feature of commodity-producing societies: The division of labour

“brings into contact independent producers of commodities, who acknowledge no authority other than that of competition, of the coercion exerted by the pressure of their reciprocal interests, just as in the animal kingdom the ‘war of all against all’ more or less preserves the conditions of existence of every species. The same bourgeois consciousness which celebrates the division of labour in the workshop, the lifelong annexation of the worker to a partial operation, and his complete subjection to capital, as an organization of labour that increases its productive power, denounces with equal vigour every conscious attempt to control and regulate the process of production socially, as an inroad upon such sacred things as the rights of property, freedom and the self-determining ‘genius’ of the individual capitalist”.

Humans can live without competition, but they cannot live and survive as isolated individuals or in pure competition. Co-operation is for Marx and Engels more foundational for society than competition. The latter is just a historic mode of existence of co-operation and social relations in class societies.

The young Marx therefore argued:

“The individual is the social being. His life, even if it may not appear in the direct form of a communal life carried out together with others – is therefore an expression and confirmation of social life. Man’s individual and species life are not different, however much-and this is inevitable-the mode of existence of the individual is a more particular, or more general mode of the life of the species, or the life of the species is a more particular or more general individual life”.

Co-operation as the essence of the social is for Marx and Engels a fundamental human capacity. Marx and Engels therefore define the social as co-operation: The social denotes

“the co-operation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner and to what end. It follows from this that a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a ‘productive force’”.

In a letter to Engels, Marx commented on Herbert Spencer’s works:

“If you were forced, as I am, to read the economic articles of Messrs Lalor, Herbert Spencer, Macleod, etc., in The Westminster Review, etc., you would see that all of them are fed up with the economic trivialities – and know their readers are fed up, too – so they try to give their scribblings some flavour through PSEUDOPHILOSOPHICAL or PSEUDOSCIENTIFIC SLANG. The pseudocharacter in no way makes the writing (content = 0) easy to understand. On the contrary. The trick lies in so mystifying the reader and causing him to rack his brain, that he may finally be relieved to discover that these HARD WORDS are only fancy dress for loci communes [commonplaces]”.

Marx’s formulation is an elegant way of saying that Spencer’s work is crap. One can visit both Marx and Spencer at Highgate Cemetery. They share the same burial ground, but their graves lie in fact exactly opposite to each other. Their graves are symbols for opposed worldviews and understandings of society. There is fascism, war, the eulogy of capitalism, the fetishism and naturalisation of competition and domination on the one side. And socialism, humanism, the critique of capitalism, and the historicising of competition and domination on the other side.

Whereas shopping at Marks and Spencer invites you to make peace with capitalism and consumer society, visiting Marx and Spencer ultimately confronts you with the question: Which side are you on?

There can be a society without war, markets, money, exchange, exploitation, domination, ideology, nationalism, advertising, sports competitions, the Olympic Games, soccer leagues, World Cups, citation indexes, Facebook likes, Twitter followers, Eurovision, and other expressions of the principles of competition and accumulation in society.

There is life beyond capitalism. A society without Marks and Spencer. A society without Spencer. A society with Marx.

Acknowledgement: Image 1 (Marks & Spencer):
By GianniM (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0,, via Wikimedia Commons

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