The return of Karl Marx


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:

  1. Capitalism’s Chaotic Nature: The inherently chaotic, crisis-prone nature of capitalism as can be seen by the recent great recession.
  2. 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.
  3. The Globalization of Capitalism: This is now pretty self-evident.
  4. The Growth of Monopolies: This again is quite self-evident
  5. 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.

McElwee concludes:

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.

Comments

  1. says

    the predictions of political theory tend to be woolly and susceptible to cherry picking and confirmation bias

    That’s because they’re not “predictions” they are at best “guesses” and at worst “wild-eyed extrapolations” At least you didn’t call it “political science” 😉

  2. colnago80 says

    The economic systems instituted in the so-called Communist countries were state capitalist systems where the state owned the means of productions instead of private parties. This is contrary to what Marx actually proposed in that the means of production would be owned by the workers that labored in the enterprises. The closest thing to Marxist enterprises in the United States are the ESOPs; however, most of them really consist of the workers owning the stocks, or at least a majority of them, in the enterprises which is not what Marx had in mind. The Israeli Kibbutzim are the only pure Marxist enterprises in the world and their success is controversial.

  3. kraut says

    Marx
    actually said a “communist” revolution, that is in essence a democratization of the industrial economy and a democratization of the capitalist state (a nation where less than 1% of the population controls about 87% of the wealth and industrial production can only be called democratic by someone who ignores the realities of the nexus capital/politics) can only happen when capital is concentrated to the extend that the interest of the capital and the politics is “deckungsgleich”.

    At this point only a revolution can free both capital and the productive element inherent in the “masses’ – the workers and the dispossessed in this capitalist state – to further development of society to a really democratic state, where both capital and politics are truly democratic, controlled by the masses.
    The endgame is an anarchic society, where even democratic “dictatorship” i.e. the rule of the majority is abandoned and the individual is free to make decisions based on his needs and not his means.

    The major disagreement between Marx and the especially Russian anarchist was the path to follow. The anarchists wanted to get there directly by eliminating the intervening steps – which in Russia meant from feudalism directly to anarchy.
    Marx saw capitalism as an absolutely necessity to develop the means of production of a society from a feudal system, and was aware that only capitalism would permit this necessary step out of feudalism by creating capital – frozen labour as he called it.

    To call Marx “anti capitalist” is simply erroneous and shows unfamiliarity with his writings. As Bertold Brecht stated in the fifties: a good Marxist education cost about 25 000 Deutsch Marks (at ’50s prices).
    I could never afford this, but went through intense discussions and readings of Marx and Lenin n the sixties in Germany, spurred on by the actions of Rudy Dutschke, Cohn-Bendit etc.
    One work that might act as a primer is the “Kritik der politischen oekonomie” where he clearly defines what he means by “Kapital”.

  4. says

    colnago80

    The Israeli Kibbutzim are the only pure Marxist enterprises in the world and their success is controversial.

    The Marxists who’ve been continually elected in Emilia-Romagna since the 40s and have built up an extensive network of manufacturing and other co-ops might argue with you on that point.

  5. Nightshade says

    kraut@3:The endgame is an anarchic society, where even democratic “dictatorship” i.e. the rule of the majority is abandoned and the individual is free to make decisions based on his needs and not his means.
    How exactly would this work?
    If someone needs medical care and can’t provide it to himself,how does he go about obtaining it from those who can provide it?Does he appeal to their humanity and entreat them to provide it out of kindness?
    And if they want,then what?

  6. unbound says

    As long as success in the US is defined purely in terms of money, the masses will not learn to push back against the ever-growing income disparity. The masses need to learn that there are alternatives to “money at all costs”, and they need to learn that the richest among us are actually pretty constantly lying to them (e.g. hard work is not what got them to the top, at least not exclusively). I don’t see this happening anytime soon as we can observe by many of the masses happily parroting the placard phrases handed to them by the rich.

  7. unbound says

    @5 – That becomes the interesting question. One that can’t be answered with a capitalistic mindset. People would have to learn that there are other ways to make good decisions. The simplicity of the capitalistic decision (i.e. do you have the money?) is actually packed with a ton of assumptions that are simply not discussed.

    If the person can’t afford the treatment, why? Did the person not work enough? Are the costs reasonable? What should the cost be when there is insufficient competition? That last question is incredibly important in the current age as there is pretty much no market left that has sufficient competition to be seriously considered an efficient capitalistic market.

    The reality is that we are not in a capitalistic environment and haven’t been for many decades now. Most markets are oligopolistic markets in the current age. The fact that we choose not to recognize this reality doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be having the discussion about the increasing problems these oligopolistic markets are causing.

  8. kraut says

    Anarchism does not mean there are no organizational entities to organize the flow of goods and services, the way self government works. What is important that those organizations rely strictly on the self interests of the producers – no, not the capitalist, the worker is the producer.
    Unfortunately I have due to circumstances not kept up with anarchist theory, but reading Bakunin might help to get the ideas of how to organize such a free society.
    http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/the-revolutionary-ideas-of-bakunin

    “Bakunin’s vision of revolution was not purely directed at the state, it was directed also against capitalism. A free society was based on “the land, the instruments of work and all other capital” becoming “the collective property of the whole of society and be utilised only by the workers, in other words by the agricultural and industrial associations.” Thus one of the firsts act of the revolution was the workers making “a clean sweep of all the instruments of labour, every kind of capital and building.” For “no revolution could succeed . . . unless it was simultaneously a political and a social revolution.” The social revolution to be, at the same time, the abolition of the state and of capitalism.

    The new, free, society would be organised “from the bottom-up,” as a “truly popular organisation begins from below, from the association, from the commune. Thus starting out with the organisation of the lowest nucleus and proceeding upward, federalism becomes a political institution of socialism, the free and spontaneous organisation of popular life.” Economically, wage slavery would be replaced by co-operative production, which would “flourish and reach its full potential only in a society where the land, the instruments of production, and hereditary property will be owned and operated by the workers themselves: by their freely organised federations of industrial and agricultural workers.”

    In this way, “every human being should have the material and moral means to develop his humanity.” Bakunin’s anarchism was about changing society and abolishing all forms of authoritarian social relationship, putting life before the spirit-destroying nature of the state and capitalism. For the anarchist “takes his stand on his positive right to life and all its pleasures, both intellectual, moral and physical. He loves life, and intends to enjoy it to the full.” ”

    The ideas of libertarianism can never be achieved in a capitalist society that permits the accumulation of capital and the exploitation of the many by the few. This kind of libertarianism is ultimately repressive and the liberty of the slave owner.

  9. Randy Lee says

    Marx ‘s diagnosis of the economic/political model of his day and the future he saw is much like that of a doctor who begins treating a patient who is experiencing side-effects from medication they are taking. Rather than withdraw the medication and provide another remedy, the doctor prescribes more medication to offset the side-effects of the first, and then more to offset the side-effects of the second, etc.

    Marx, like all of us, was born into a era where what was most often being utilized as money was a controlled commodity, i.e. currency. Since the replacement of barter monies by currencies, few today understand the distinction between money and currency. Money is found in nature, currency is a value construct created by man, and not always connected to a commodity. For instance, barter money encompassed every percievable thing of value that was availablle for exchange in the market. Currency can act as money where agreed upon or commanded by edict, but barter money will only become currency where legal tender laws are imposed, such as gold and silver coinage per constitutional mandate. Without such a legal tender mandate, gold and silver are just two more things of value available for exchange in a barter market.

    Why is all this important? Well………,Marx’s prescription, his ideology, failed to consider the side-effects of market-places monopolized by the financial KAPITAL of currency. His prescription brings multiple other side-efects to society, all of which require state control and the initiation of violence..

    The essential engine, i.e. driving force, of every economy is the available mediums of exchange which serve as facilitators to commercial transactions and stores of value that can be employed commercially in the future. Mediums of exchange allow for the growth of the merchant class which in turn spread wealth to a community. In a barter market certain commodities, as a result of either their necessity and/or desired utilization, would naturally rise to positions of mediums of exchange and therefore commerce facilitators. In such a barter market, control over the various mediums of exchange could never be monopolized to any great extent. It was only after governments (kings and priests) declared certain items to be money by coining the same that economic monopolies began to prosper. This was the beginning of currency.

    As currencies displaced barter mediums, sometimes as a result of government edict and at other times because of the allure of convenience, economic power shifted from the people to those who controlled the issuance of the currency. As this shift grew the transfer of wealth to a ruler class automatically occurred as a result of market forces surrounding the utilization of the controlled currency. Same thing happens today.

    One of Marx’s Communist Planks was the creation of a centralization bank that would issue credit [the new currency, Federal Reserve System] in lieu of money. Marx has given society nothing positive, except maybe a heads-up as to the new slavery being imposed.. Forcing everyone to utilize a given currency only enriches the issuers of said currency. Forcing everyone to pay income tax enslaves everyone to the taxman.

    The solution lies in the ability of the individual to exchange the value of his wealth without the need for currencies in a market place where competing mediums of exchange and multiple things of value compete as money.. That wealth includes his skills, property, and every thing of value he can make available to the market. Only then will mankind be free, economically free. Only then will each of us be able to forge our own pathway.

    Those who promote currencies are akin to parasites who ultimately exist off of the labor of others and who must rely upon the initiation of state violence in order to force the utilization of their currency and the perpetuation of the status quo.

  10. kraut says

    “The Israeli Kibbutzim are the only pure Marxist enterprises in the world and their success is controversial.”

    Again – Marxist as defined by someone who apparently never has read anything by Marx – except the USA ideological bullshit they peddle as “marxism” to scare little kids with.

    The kibbutz could be defined as socialist, or communal, but had little to do with anything “marxist”, for the simple reason alone that the communist revolution does not happen kibbutz by kibbutz in a sliver of land called Israel.
    Another experiment that has been running for several hundred years now – and is growing in Canada and the US are the Hutterites and the Amish, a Christian socialist experiment with however limited freedoms – being necessary to keep the flock in line and adhere to the religious dogma.

  11. Nightshade says

    kraut@8:”…the land, the instruments of work and all other capital” becoming “the collective property of the whole of society and be utilised only by the workers,”…”in other words by the agricultural and industrial associations.”

    Politics within the associations would ensure that certain individuals,families,friends etc. would have more influence and therefore power and resources. Factions would form. Communal violence erupt. Something like a state recreated to restore order.Only with a new set of masters.

    kraut@8The new, free, society would be organised “from the bottom-up,” as a “truly popular organisation begins from below, from the association, from the commune. Thus starting out with the organisation of the lowest nucleus and proceeding upward, federalism becomes a political institution of socialism, the free and spontaneous organisation of popular life.”

    Given how thoroughly you have this planned it could hardly be “free and spontaneous”
    What about those who may want to opt out would you(kraut) allow them to, or will the whole population in the territory of the former regime be forced to live according to your social model.

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