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.