Why Marx got it right about the iPhone

Robert Thompson
Stoic Gazette
Published in
3 min readNov 6, 2021

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Photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash

Does Karl Marx have anything to say to us today, over 200 years after his birth? Have his predictions about a proletariat triumph over the bourgeoisie aged well? Read on …

Does Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism resonate centuries later? His predictions of proletariat victory over bourgeoisie seem outdated. Yet his insights on capitalism’s ills still ring true if applied to modern life through a Stoic lens.

Consider The Communist Manifesto — does it reflect your world? Marx and Engels described capitalism fueling new desires needing goods from afar, constantly revolutionizing production and social conditions, reducing relations to naked self-interest and cold transactions. This presciently describes today’s globalized economy.

For me, his critique of capitalism still resonates, just not in their original context. Read the first few pages of The Communist Manifesto. Then see if you can apply it to your life, versus the world he and Engels described. They wrote of how capitalism replaces old wants with new ones that require:

for their satisfaction the products of distant lands

about how it involves

constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation

about how it reduces all social interaction to

naked self-interest

and

callous cash payment

Does this sound familiar? These seem all too prescient in light of today’s globalised economy.

Look at the iPhone’s fetishization —

“contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites,”

Marx warned. We enjoy unimaginable luxuries yet compulsively crave more, oblivious to exploited Chinese workers who fall ill assembling our devices.

Facebook exemplifies capitalism commodifying customers into exploitable data assets. Soaring inequality and the ever-richer “1%” evoke Marx’s warnings about wealth concentration. As he predicted, capitalism imbues arbitrary products with misplaced value rather than meeting authentic human needs with wisdom.

From a Stoic perspective, insatiable craving for external things like wealth and possessions reflects disturbed judgment about what constitutes good and evil. As Epictetus stated,

“Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.”

Much suffering arises from fixating on what we lack rather than appreciating what we have.

Seneca the Younger wrote,

“How far happier is he who is content with what he has, and is self-sufficient, than one who lives in luxury and needs many things.”

Globalization and automation have reduced opportunities for less skilled labor while concentrating rewards for elites. Yet technology itself is not to blame — the problem lies in distorted values, unchecked greed, and misaligned incentives.

As Marcus Aurelius observed,

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your estimate of it, and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Thus improving society requires changing how we judge success, status, and prosperity. External reforms will fail unless rooted in personal virtue, wisdom, and justice.

Marx expected capitalism’s contradictions to spur revolution and a more egalitarian system. But Stoics would question the impulse to control external events rather than excelling inwardly. As Epictetus noted,

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by his opinion about things.”

Beyond material conditions, our judgments shape experience. Reforms must address values and beliefs underpinning society.

Rather than fomenting conflict, Stoics would encourage dialogue across social divides, appealing to shared humanity. Marcus Aurelius reflected,

“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”

Blaming others ignores our own potential complicity through misguided values. The seeds of positive change are within us all. Progress requires exemplifying the change we wish to see.

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