Karl Marx is one of the major influences in the whole field of political economy. Even those who think he is the embodiment of evil have to acknowledge how much his analyses of capitalism has shaped the way we view things and structure our socieities. But some of his most publicized predictions were spectacularly wrong, chief among them that the communist revolution would first occur in advanced industrial societies like Germany during his time. The fact that it happened in the more backward feudal and agrarian country of Russia, plus the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shift of so many formerly Communist nations such as those in Russia, Eastern Europe, and China to more market-based economies were widely portrayed by his critics as conclusively demonstrating failure of his entire theory of political economy and seemed the occasion to bury Marx’s ideas for good.
But Sean McElwee argues that Marx might, in his grave, be having the last laugh in that he was not wrong but just premature. McElwee discusses five predictions that have now come to pass in 2014. These are:
- Capitalism’s Chaotic Nature: The inherently chaotic, crisis-prone nature of capitalism as can be seen by the recent great recession.
- Imaginary Appetites: “Capitalism’s tendency to concentrate high value on essentially arbitrary products would, over time, lead to what he called “a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites.” It’s a harsh but accurate way of describing contemporary America, where we enjoy incredible luxury and yet are driven by a constant need for more and more stuff to buy” like the iPhone 5S, that many people somehow felt they must have even though it may be just marginally better than the iPhone 5 or even the iPhone 4.
- The Globalization of Capitalism: This is now pretty self-evident.
- The Growth of Monopolies: This again is quite self-evident
- The Reserve Army of Industrial Labor: We see this in the rapid rise in inequality. “Marx believed that wages would be held down by a “reserve army of labor,” which he explained simply using classical economic techniques: Capitalists wish to pay as little as possible for labor, and this is easiest to do when there are too many workers floating around. Thus, after a recession, using a Marxist analysis, we would predict that high unemployment would keep wages stagnant as profits soared, because workers are too scared of unemployment to quit their terrible, exploitative jobs.
Marx was wrong about many things. Most of his writing focuses on a critique of capitalism rather than a proposal of what to replace it with – which left it open to misinterpretation by madmen like Stalin in the 20th century. But his work still shapes our world in a positive way as well. When he argued for a progressive income tax in the Communist Manifesto, no country had one. Now, there is scarcely a country without a progressive income tax, and it’s one small way that the U.S. tries to fight income inequality. Marx’s moral critique of capitalism and his keen insights into its inner workings and historical context are still worth paying attention to. As Robert L. Heilbroner writes, “We turn to Marx, therefore, not because he is infallible, but because he is inescapable.” Today, in a world of both unheard-of wealth and abject poverty, where the richest 85 people have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion, the famous cry, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains,” has yet to lose its potency.
Of course, the predictions of political theory tend to be woolly and susceptible to cherry picking and confirmation bias. But the rise of extreme income inequality, the squeezing of the labor force, the rhetoric of the 1% v. the 99%, and the emergence of the language of class warfare may signal that Marx is making a comeback.