The Spectre of Marx

This post was written by Guest Post on August 30, 2009
Posted Under: Capitalism,Economy,Socialism

Guest post by Matthew Wood

A spectre is haunting the world. The spectre of Karl Marx. Ever since global capitalism had its infallible supremacy shaken by the tumultuous events of a little under a year ago – bank bailouts, quantitative easing, the collective schadenfreude of chastened bankers shuffling out of glass walled offices holding boxes of pot plants, family photographs and stationary – Marx’s name has resurfaced in the public consciousness. Newspapers from the Guardian to the Financial Times have all mentioned the 19th century revolutionary, philosopher, historian and economist in complimentary terms since The Crash. In Germany, copies of Das Kapital have been flying off the shelves (a small boon for booksellers facing hard times from an unlikely author) and even French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been seen perusing a copy.

It is Marx’s analysis of the cyclical, crises-prone nature of capitalism that has been behind the gleeful I-told-you-sos from socialists who have been festering in historical dustbins for the last twenty years or so, as well as the grudging acceptance of liberal commentators. Of course, there is a danger of blowing this all out of proportion; Martin Wolf of the Financial Times is not about to advocate the abolition of private property and financial regulation, if it comes (or has it come already? we may have missed it), will be in keeping with the wounded but not exhausted geist, suitably ‘light touch’ in character.

Any suggestion, like Financial Services Authority Chairman Lord Turner’s recent proposal for a Tobin tax (a tax on financial transactions) has been met with firefighting and rebuttals from the City’s apologists. But Turner declined to endorse the Liberal Democrats’ proposal for the separation of investment and retail banking – seen as a key way of limiting the effects of high-risk speculation on the ‘real’ economy, precluding the need for expensive bail-outs in the future. Already the financial sector appears to be settling down once more to ‘business as usual’ and the culture of the Masters of the Universe.

This acknowledgement of Marx and the contradictions of capitalism will most likely be short lived. When the waves of the current crisis roll back – the pillars of consumer capitalism will still be there – we’ll be able to get back to hire purchase deals, personal debt, housing speculation, property programmes on telly and the pre-Crash diet of precarious, low-empowerment and often low-pay jobs. As we saw in the fat years, it is hard to galvanise opposition to an ideology that has made all of us complicit and outsourced a large number of the more unsavoury aspects (sweatshops, famine, food inflation, unemployment, climate change). If we want to get all Gramscian about it, I suppose you could say that although the economic contradictions within capitalism have been exposed – the cultural, political and social hegemony of capitalism remains intact.

However, there is one aspect of Marx’s thought that speaks eternally to the position of man in liberal democratic society. Marx’s theory of alienation, outlined in the 1844 Manuscripts, first published in 1932 and developed and studied by Marxists in the 1970s outlined an ethical, humanist and even existential dimension to Marxism – adumbrating the anti-Human and soul-destroying aspects of capitalism which are the phenomenological counterparts and also essential concepts in Marx’s ‘scientific’ analyses of surplus value, private property, capital and labour. In alienation, according to Marx, the proletariat “sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence”

It is in films like Fight Club, the lyrics of 1990s anti-capitalists Rage Against The Machine, San Francisco punk band J Church (“they take away my whole day/taking my soul away) and even nu-metal band Papa Roach (do you remember when they were cool? – “working jobs that you hate/for the shit you don’t need”) –that alienation finds its modern cultural expression. It is also there in the millions of individuals who experience the deadening effects of menial jobs (from cleaners to data-enterers) and the insatiable infinite wanting of consumerism.

Alienation is ripe for development as a central plank in a renewed critique of liberal democracy.

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Reader Comments

The re-emergence of Marxist analysis in the mainstream media may be a small victory, but it is a Phyrric victory I think. The left, unfortunately, is far from a position in which it can say I told you so. Despite socialists having a vague appreciation for the fact that capitalism is crisis-prone and that you cannot have boom without bust, none of the major left parties in this country, to my knowledge, predicted the credit crunch. This has left them in a fairly weak position to tackle it and is, next to their failure to capitalise on the anti-war movement and their failure to rise above sectarian squabbling, one of the main reasons they are in such a poor position right now. Moreover, I don’t think the credit crunch can be successfully analysed as a crisis of over production. If anything, it is a crisis of over consumption.

Written By Salman Shaheen on August 31st, 2009 @ 12:40 am

“I don’t think the credit crunch can be successfully analysed as a crisis of over production. If anything, it is a crisis of over consumption”

Not sure what you mean by this. The ‘Credit Crunch’ is no longer really the issue, this is a full blown recession, which goes much deeper. Capital has been using debt to and credit to prop up profits for some time, and this came crashing down. Why would you characterise it as a crisis of over-consumption?

Written By Dan on August 31st, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

Because irresponsible loans/mortgaages and bad debt are a symptom of a wider problem. For a long time, people have been living beyond their means. An embourgeoisied culture of buy now pay later over consumption has emerged, which banks, lenders and credit card companies have preyed apon by lending money to people who were never going to be able to pay it back. You could argue that this all started because mortgages were traded and house prices in America collapsed. But the problem arose when people could no longer pay for their over consumption and began to default on debts. Marx’s analysis of industrialised capitalism’s crises of over production rarely apply to the busts of modern capitalism, which are caused not by technology, but capital itself.

Written By Salman Shaheen on August 31st, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

I’m still not really sure what you mean. Debt was a mechanism for propping up consumption whilst freezing or cutting real wages. This was a state of affairs that could not persist forever, and when it finally began to collapse this had devastating consequences. Demand dropped, and we are seeing the resultant devastation of all sectors of the economy. I don’t see where any of this particularly invalidates Marx’s analysis.
I’m really not sure it gets to the core of the issue to suggest that this is about people ‘living beyond their means’ (what does this mean?). And surely Marx would agree that it is not technology that causes crisis, but the structure of capitalism itself?

Written By Dan on August 31st, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

I’m very much in favour of a structural analysis, but I think it would be difficult to get to the core of the issue without adressing over consumption at the societal and the individual level. The Thatcherite dream of everyone being middle class provided opportunities for the traditional working class, but it also brought with it dangers. Selling off council houses led to a rise in home ownership in the 80s, but by the 90s this had turned to soaring reposessions. Readily available mortgages, loans and credit cards, as you say, prop up consumption without the need to increase wages. It also allows, for a time, people to consume more than they can afford and to live beyond their means.

I didn’t say Marx’s analysis was invalid. But I don’t believe, beyond a general feeling for the crisis prone nature of capitalism, it is the ideal tool for analysing the specifics of the credit crunch. Of course you can stretch out his notion of over production like a Biblical parable to explain every recession in history, but then we’re into the territory of Popper’s criticisms. The truth is, Marx never really accounted for the nature of credit, or capitalism’s adaptability to global financial markets.

Written By Salman Shaheen on August 31st, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

I’m not suggesting that we use anything like a biblical parable, I think what Marx had to say about economics is still directly relevant. I don’t think it is ‘the truth’ that Marx didn’t account for the nature of credit. Take, for example, this line from Marx: “Banking and Credit thus become the most potent means of driving capitalist production beyond its own limits – and one of the most effective vehicles of crises and swindles”. There’s more to say about credit than Marx said, sure, but it’s not dogmatism to think what he did say was useful.
More broadly I don’t see how the notions of ‘living beyond our means’ and ‘over-consumption’ are useful except as redescriptions of the events. They seem to me like different ways of saying what I think is uncontroversial, that credit was allowing people to buy what they couldn’t otherwise afford. What is ‘the core of the issue’ that these notions can help us get to?

Written By Dan on September 1st, 2009 @ 12:52 am

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