What a Long-Dead Radical Like Marx Had to Say About Our Predicament

Karl Marx Oh Marx, the ever so divisive figure. Before I did my brief stint in grad school, Marx was just another shadowy 19th century revolutionary with a massive beard and some pretty heretical ideas – the same ideas that in one way or another, lead millions to suffer through disruptive revolutions, upheavals and some truly horrendous crimes. I can safely say that few that lived in communist regimes had good things to say about it. That is, unless you suffer from Ostalgie.

In most cases, whenever I hear phrases like “class warfare” or “communes”, my eyes begin to glaze over and my mind conjures up images of collective farming or the idea of revisionism. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s those Jan Wong books or multiple viewings of Les invasions barbares. Both highly recommended by the way, and neither has much to do with Marx.

Nowadays, other than North Korea, Nepal and Cuba, very few states are actively committed to the communist ideals in any meaningful way. And even they are beginning to move away from a strict application. Going into graduate school for political science, little did I expect to see Karl Marx’s name and any serious discussions stemming from his 150-year-old ideas. It seemed too cultish, too dogmatic, and too out-dated. I was wrong. But first, let’s talk about how he’s been wrong.

Marx was wrong, and some of it had to do with timing. At the time of his writing, he grossly underestimated the importance of nation-states, and its insuppressible rise that was just around the corner. After two wars during the first half of the 20th century, the nation-state status was finally solidified. Some threw out their copies of Das Kapital right around then. But a couple of decades ago, regional integration became the new political trend after communism formally collapsed against capitalism. NAFTA, the EU, the formation of various regional groups have in many ways blurred borders yet again. We seem to have come full circle.

Marx was also pretty harsh on religion. It’s no surprise that his unflattering opinions on religion and his denunciation, or should we say, wishful analysis, that capitalism would come to an end, has done wonders in alienating his works from most of the American intelligentsia. In fact, I’m not sure if Marxism, or even its more updated ideas advocated through neo-Gramscian and the Frankfurt-school critical theorists are taught seriously in any North American schools, save maybe one. Seeing how invested most of us are in the success of the current social arrangement, it’s just as well that the ultimate reckoning hasn’t come to pass yet.

One frequently misunderstood and misquoted fact about Marx is that most of his academic angst was spent on the critique of capitalism instead of a detailed construction of an utopian socialist society. Since no such political economy existed at the time, even principles espoused by his work, the Communist Manifesto, was highly abstract.

That was before 2008, when most of the world was still drunk on the pursuit of wealth accumulation based on credit, and the assurance of an ever-rising standard of living. Now we’re faced with the prospect of a pretty different world. How different, depends on your worldview and what you choose to believe in. I doubt the fundamental pillars of capitalism are broken. After all, no matter what ideology you subscribe to, translating something from paper to practice will result in occasional snafus. Thus far, our experiment with capitalism has fared much better than the alternative. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

My high school history teacher was a communist, I think even the card-carrying type, and he always claimed that the problem with communism wasn’t its principles, but the lack of finesse with which they were applied. I’m pretty skeptical about that. The fact that mainly agrarian (read: backward, non-industrialized, with negligible middle class and a mass of uneducated peasant underclass) societies picked up and ran with the ideas espoused by Marx may have just as much to say about the principles they put into practice as the countries themselves.

Many of Marx ideas were buried and sometimes confused with his more radical colleagues and disciples (not to say that he’s not a polarizing revolutionary figure in his own right). When I reluctantly studied Marxism (because this is an actual political science theory and gets its dues in European schools), I was surprised to find many of his ideas relevant, some even prescient.

I realize the irony of writing about a figure that staked his reputation and legacy on the downfall of capitalism, on a blog where without the framework of capitalism, nothing would actually take place. But it’s hard to deny that capitalism is far from perfect. If you were not aware of the fact prior to the ongoing crisis, it should be obvious by now. Perhaps understanding some of the shortcomings of what we have right now will make us more alert and perceptive to its systemic flaws. If that’s not the best way to ensure the survival and continual betterment of the system, I don’t know what is. Here are a few things Marx said about capitalism from his boudoir 150 years ago. Make what you want of them.

Globalization

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned … the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

This was Communist Manifesto‘s description of the global reach of capitalism. This was part luck and part biding one’s time. At the time of writing, certain parts of Europe were in war with each other, where others enjoyed cosmopolitanism (under the auspices of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires) not known to the region for another 100 years or so. That was before strong nation-states became the norm. It would take another century for the world to see relative peace, another few decades before the ideas of globalization became accepted by the mainstream. Off-shoring, out-sourcing, and all of these manufacturing and service strategies came along, and the rest is history. Read Thomas Friedman if you want a primer on the scope of globalization.

Rising profits and falling wages

Another one of Marx’s ideas is the phenomena of rising profits, matched with falling wages for the average worker. This is called the “theory of immiseration” (doesn’t sound too appetizing to me either), and predicts that workers will become poorer relatively to “capitalists” over time. Some blame the increasing wage inequality on trade; others claim part of it is due to international competition and technological changes. End of the day, facts are hard to deny: whichever way you slice and dice it, income gap is widening around the world.

Industrial capital versus financial capital

Marx also talked about the struggle between industrial capital and financial capital. Timely too, as Christopher Hitchens quipped:

As I write this, every newspaper informs me of frantic efforts by merchants to unload onto the consumer, at almost any price, the vast surplus of unsold commodities that have accumulated since the credit crisis began to take hold. The phrase crisis of over-production, which I learned so many long winters ago in “agitational” meetings, recurs to my mind. On other pages, I learn that the pride of American capitalism has seized up and begun to rust, and that automobiles may cease even to be made in Detroit as a consequence of insane speculation in worthless paper “derivatives.”

Politicians captured by corporate interest

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

No, this is not written by Marx, although it really could’ve been. He does write about it too, but with an ever so slight inclination for action and results. This is the summary of this month’s The Atlantic’s feature article by former IMF economist Simon Johnson.

In conclusion, whether you agree with the ideology of Marxism or not, it really doesn’t matter. In political science, students are taught to familiarize themselves with all the frameworks offered by a wide array of theories. Those theories, we are told, are not unlike glasses that you put on to see the world. If an understanding is all we are after, perhaps we should be a bit more open-minded about what Marx, or anyone else, can offer in understanding our current predicament.  No matter how radical it may have seemed at first. After all, his ideas on globalization, income inequality, rise of the financial services industry, and the power of corporate interests are more or less, right.

picture source: ahermin

Comments on this entry are closed.