In 2008, a bunch of dishonest vampire white-collar schmucks very nearly brought the entire global economy to a crashing, violent end. In the process, they induced serious whiplash. Unemployment went up, growth went down the toilet, the Fed desperately suppressed interest rates to induce borrowing and lending, companies sat on piles of cash and waited to invest.
It is unclear, in the aftermath of this global crisis and subsequent recession, where the American capitalist system is headed. After the financial crisis, there is a widespread sense that something is not working right. Movements advocating drastic changes, like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Wikileaks and the Free Bradley Manning movement, and Anonymous (or more generally, groups advocating the use of technology to disrupt the status quo), are emerging. We are far from the golden days of capitalism.
There is great uncertainty about economic systems of the future – about what the future will look like. Marx once said, “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” The collapse of the United States economy, precipitated largely by shady financial instruments and dishonest behavior perpetrated in the pursuit of money, has showed many countries the simultaneously rosy and bleak future to which the path of the United States leads.
Enter Karl Marx.
Marx was history’s most significant critic of capitalism. Marx saw capitalism as an inherently unjust system founded on exploitation, and inherently self-destructive. Marx identified economic motivations as driving human relations and societies. Marx predicted that capitalism could not survive on its own, that the accumulation of wealth leads to the destruction of wealth. Marx saw alienation as a natural consequence of capitalism – alienation of the worker from the product of his or her work, alienation of the worker from the act of working or producing, alienation of the worker from himself or herself as a producer, and alienation of the worker from other workers. The result is a system in which human beings simply become parts in a production process, no more human than the products they produce – human beings as commodities. Marx saw revolution as the natural consequence of such alienation, with the result, as Eugene Kamenka puts it, that “man will cease to be the object of history, the slave of a productive process that he himself created, and will become master of himself, society, and nature.” (Viking Portable Marx, pp. xxxv).
But Marx largely avoided discussions of a solution – what would come after the end of capitalism. Again, Eugene Kamenka: “Marxism was distinguished from utopian socialism and revolutionary anarchism by reference to its scientific character… Marxism was a science: it did not abstractly advocate socialism; it showed that socialism was inevitable. It did not ask for a ‘just’ wage; it showed that the wage system was dehumanizing and self-destructive. Marxism did not tell the proletariat what it ought to do; it showed the proletariat what it would be forced to do, by its own character and situation, by its position in industry and in history.” (Viking Portable Marx, p. xli.) Marx did not make predictions about what would come next – Marx simply communicated the need for something to come next. He (perhaps wisely) largely avoided talking about how communism would actually be implemented in practice.
As The Economist points out (“Marx’s intellectual legacy: Marx after communism,” 19 December 2002), Marx did once predict how communism might work in practice: “In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity…society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, herdsman or critic.” But, they then argue, “this cartoon is almost all Marx ever said about communism in practice. The rest has to be deduced, as an absence of things he deplored about capitalism.”
As I began my reading of Marx’s Das Kapital, I was struck by the relevance of Marx to the situation in which the global economy finds itself. The foundations of capitalism have been shaken, and countries throughout the world are experimenting with mixing elements of statism and capitalism (The Economist, “Emerging market multinationals: The rise of state capitalism,” 21 January 2012). And while Marx’s writings were often broad and sweeping, general enough to be applied to nearly any possible outcome, the wonder of Marx is his persistent relevance to economics. His predictions have not always – have not often – turned out to be correct. But the power of his ideas was enormous, his influence widespread. Even Marx’s critics were indebted to his ideas: Karl Marx undeniably set the tone for a debate over capitalism, a debate that still rages today. While Marx did not give us a vision of how a Utopian socialist future might work, he expressed a need for a vision that stretched beyond the horizon of capitalism and looked further to see what would come after capitalism.
Norman Mailer said of Das Kapital that it was the “first of the major psychologies to approach the mystery of social cruelty so simply and practically as to say that we are a collective body of humans whose life-energy is wasted, displaced, and procedurally stolen as it passes from one of us to another.” Indeed, the simultaneous appeal and inherent contradiction of capitalism is the fact that it feeds on our dark sides – our greed – our wickedness. “Capitalism,” in the words of John Maynard Kaynes, “is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of [people] will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”
In thinking about future economic systems, in thinking about where the human race is headed, in thinking about the future, Karl Marx’s system of thought is challenging – and cannot be dismissed. It is unfortunate that Marx has been summarily dismissed, not because of any illegitimacy of his ideas, but because of the actions of people who hijacked and abused Marx’s ideas. The dismissal of Marx by pointing a finger at the evil done in his name is a symptom of a widespread simplistic and Manichaean world-view. After all, as Eugene Kamenka said in his introduction to the Viking Portable Marx (p. xliv), “Like Christianity… both Marxism and Marxism-Leninism speak in the name of their founder more often than they speak with his voice.”