Recent years have seen a surge of renewed interest in Karl Marx’s political-economic thought. For those not living in a cave somewhere, this has been hard to miss. This interest is not coming primarily from the “cultural Marxists” of academic humanities, obsessed with identity politics and likely to be viewed, once this new tendency is understood, as pseudo-Marxists. It is coming from careful and astute observers who have looked backward from the financial crisis of 2008 and charted the basic trajectory of global political economy since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party’s embrace of state-capitalism, and the range of irrational policies that led to the aforementioned crisis. The attention paid to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) is telling, but barely scratches the surface. One guide to a few recent works, and a few older ones, can be perused here.
Before going on, a disclaimer. I want to be sure it is clear: I am not, have not been, some kind of Marxist-in-disguise all along, “coming out of the closet” with this little essay. I maintain a Christian worldview, and I hope it is also clear: those two schools of thought, the Christian one and the Marxian one, draw from incompatible first premises (although there are a few structural similarities I will not get into here). Christianity grounds the fundamentals of reality, including human social reality, in the existence and sovereignty of a transcendent God, regards the human race as inherently sinful, and explains the failures of morality and justice in all political economy as ultimately due to our fallenness. Classical Marxism is as atheistic as any form of materialism, marrying the latter to Hegel’s philosophy (Marx’s term should be familiar: dialectical materialism). It grounds the events of history in material forces; it contends that the primary driver of history is the clash of interests between those who own the means of production and those who not: class struggle.
This essay will reject the popular claim that because the Soviet Union collapsed and the Chinese embraced a form of state-capitalism, Marx’s thought is without serious interest and that the “new Marxists” or whatever we want to call them are therefore delusional. But I will present my own take on where this conversation is going. It may well be that the trajectory of the systems set in motion throughout the course of secular modernity, given human nature as Christianity understands it, yield results very much like what Marx decreed would be the fate of capitalist civilization, mired in tensions (Marx called them contradictions) and absurdities, even if for a variety of reasons, some specifically Christian and some not, we doubt the inevitability of revolution and establishing a brand of socialism capable of leading to Communism as Marx originally envisioned it, the state having “withered away.”
One thing triggering much of the recent thought is the sense that what occurred in 2008 was a structural event, and not just the result just of this or that series of bad policies on the part of the big banks freed as of 1999 from Glass-Steagall separations (of investment from commercial sectors): an inevitable product of something fundamentally unsustainable, namely, capital accumulation as an end in itself. The “recovery,” therefore, has been (outside the privileged enclaves of Wall Street and venture capital bankrolled Silicon Valley, anyway) an illusion born as much of wishful thinking as of statistics designed to mislead (e.g., “U-3” unemployment). Many if not most of the jobs created in the wake of the meltdown have been, after all, low wage affairs, many not even full time, with little or no promise of the upward mobility of the jobs of, say, 60 years ago. The kind of relationship between employer and employee that existed then is broken, and the break looks to be permanent. There is the suspicion, moreover, that even that era was a kind of bubble, the product of amelioration resulting from fear of the attractiveness of the haunting specters overseas. The slow rise of neoliberalism from the Mont Pèlerin enclave of the late 1940s to its takeover of the Republicans in the 1980s and and the Democrats in the 1990s reversed the amelioration, set in motion processes that led inevitably to, e.g., predatory lending, to the meltdown, and to the increasing visibility of the misery the current brand of secular global capitalism has wrought.
For the most obvious recent historical development, which predates Piketty’s book, has been the “populist” insurgency, looking different in different places but overall global in scope and characterized by rejection of elite governance. It targets “globalization” (i.e., capital accumulation gone global for structural reasons: capital either creates new markets and expands into them or it dies), increasingly seen as the growing dominance over the so-called developed world by a wealthy and powerful superelite, the term I used in my book Four Cardinal Errors, centered in (relative to controlled populations) the microscopically small community of international financiers, the corporations they own, and the political classes they control as “puppet-masters.”
In this view, that is, the world’s Ruling Class, if you will, enjoyers of real privilege, is “private” and not “public.” The locus of control is the global network of corporate leviathans — to use John Perkins’s term (cf. his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, orig. 2004), the corporatocracy. Genuine locus of control does not reside with “the state, a multitude of libertarian arguments notwithstanding. The state makes the laws, and then its minions turn to the corporations for donations when they run for re-election. If they tick off their real masters, they are out of the running. The Ruling Class’s instrument of control is money, i.e., capital flows, which is systemic, rather than state-directed police power which is systematic. The latter is used only when the former fails to get the desired results.
Libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, etc., simply have this wrong, by fixating on “the state” as the root of all evil (not that it often does good as most successful politicians got where they are by being unscrupulous opportunists). It may be true enough in the abstract that were there no state, the corporatocracy would not be able to act as it has because the state is integral to it. But there is abstraction and then there is reality. The reality is that (1) the world has the state, (2) there are no practical means of abolishing it, and (3) even if there were, corporations would immediately reinvent it (what would stop them?). My contention here is that we can live in a realm of abstractions and be forever frustrated when the world refuses to fall into line with them, or we can live in the reality we have, try to understand how it actually operates, and given its actual processes and systems, move forward as best we can, incrementally, from where we are now to where we might want to be. And we have to decide what that is, realizing that “where we want to be” is not the same for everyone.
Returning to the new “populism,” while it is sometimes branded as “right wing” and sometimes as “left wing” for obvious reasons, I submit that the actual movements we see, and the impulses behind them, are neither. We should try to think outside the left vs. right dichotomous box. Arab Spring was part of this insurgency: rebellions against North African and Middle Eastern governments that ceased long ago to serve the peoples of the region, serving instead corporations and the Western war machine. The Syriza Party in Greece self-identified as “left wing.” Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., were on the other hand characterized as “right wing,” doubtless because a strong impetus behind them was skepticism about the benefits of unlimited immigration and calls for border controls, products of globalism (i.e., post-Soviet Union neoliberal global capitalism). The same is true of the current governments of Hungary and Poland who share the rejection of open borders and the hyper-centralized policies emanating from Brussels. And those candidates that have failed, such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in The Netherlands. There is additional evidence of an insurgency of Hindu fundamentalism in India. Its targets: globalization and Western materialism (i.e., again, post-Soviet Union neoliberal global capitalism).
In other words, what we are talking about includes movements hated by the “left” as well as some that identify as “left.” All indications are, this movement is not going anywhere despite a few electoral setbacks and relentless media and “lawfare” attacks (e.g., the ongoing and increasingly strained attempt to explain Trump’s victory as the product of collusion with Russia rather than the slim rejection by voters in crucial states of globalist technocrat Hillary Clinton, the Ruling Class candidate, widely and probably correctly perceived within her own party as someone who would have served capital first and everything else second).
What does Marx have to do with all this? Is he relevant today?
First, what did Marx actually say? His disciples no less than his critics have usually gotten him wrong. What he provided, more in Das Kapital (which he did not live to complete) than in The Communist Manifesto with Engels, was a painstakingly detailed description of the workings of the capitalist system of his time, a ferreting out of its “contradictions,” predictions about where it would go, and explanations why. His account was not intended as mere criticism born out of “hatred” of capitalism as conservatives and libertarians have always insisted. He understood as well as anyone that capitalism was an unprecedented engine of production, and that it had raised standards of living everywhere it had penetrated.
He saw this through Hegelian spectacles, however, in which such a system cannot help but sow the seeds of its own eventual destruction. Capitalism, he believed, produces wealth but cannot distribute it across society or otherwise make rational use of its products or of the labor whose efforts are the actual wealth creators. It tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of the owners of capital, and so impoverish labor, made poorer as labor will not be hired unless the profit that can be extracted from it exceeds its cost (“surplus value”). This does not happen solely because of the capitalist’s “greed.” It happens for structural reasons. Capitalists are also locked within a system based on competition. They must compete with other capitalists for market share. At the same time, unchecked competition tends toward overproduction: more marketed goods than nonowners of capital can afford, informally known as a glut. And this leads to further contradictions — or tensions — within the system. For even the mid-1800s corporate elites had figured out that unlimited competition couldn’t be permitted. Hence they arranged to limit it, forming the first “old boy networks,” eventually licensing occupations to restrict entry, and myriad other actions to prevent unlimited competition in markets, for jobs, etc., in finite economic space.
Capital’s greatest expense, moreover, is labor. It seeks to keep labor costs down, to maximize its profits. Again, this is not about “greed.” If a capitalist does not do this, he loses the competitive game to those who do. Hence the structural incentive to drive wages down, manifested during the post-Soviet Union era (and even before) by outsourcing labor to third world countries, insourcing cheap immigrant labor (legal or otherwise; ultimately capital does not care), and ultimately replacing labor with technology (as Marx also predicted).
Labor, on the other hand, seeks to increase its income to maximize its capacity to pay living costs. It must buy what capitalists produce, or again their profits fall and the system itself falls into crisis (recession or worse). As the amelioration era of capitalism progressed, it resolved this tension at least in the short term with the credit system pioneered by the banks: encouraging labor to buy what capitalists produced with money it did not have but was promised to have in the near future: eventually financialization broke out and spread through the system like water permeating a sponge. Banks, of course, profited handsomely. When the promise of future money was not realized, however, indebtedness resulted. Today, of course, debt is everywhere: in government (the national debt being over $21 trillion), among students (student loan debt, over $1.5 trillion), etc. Arguably, a fiat currency consists of debt: promises of repayment to the banks (with interest). Were the debt paid in full, the currency would disappear. This is hypothetical, of course: existing debt is unrepayable. Yet the system subsists on spending and then spending more. The capitalist engine, after all, is churning forward, as it must, even if what is produced no longer serves any genuine human needs (think of the tech sector and ask yourself if we really need a new edition of Windows every two or three years, much less the countless games, apps, etc., that now litter the tech landscape). Advertising and myriad other devices appeared long ago in modern capitalist civilization to motivate the masses to spend money they do not have on things they do not need. The masses would personally be better off if they saved for rainy days instead of spent on advertising-manufactured pseudo-needs. Everyone knows this. Yet again, if they save in sufficient numbers, i.e., do not spend, again the system craters. If motivated to spend, the masses sense their real needs are not truly satisfied by more and more material goods; thus the capitalist system we have (is there another?) ultimately fails the test of true human satisfaction which the materialism at its root cannot supply.
According to Marx, to stave off this sense, capitalism generates a superstructure: all that is outside the productive base, including a culture which creates, cultivates, and proliferates distractions of various forms. The system does what it can, that is, to distract labor from its increasing misery. Its mass education, again structurally, slowly and surreptitiously destroys everything that could lead future workers to think critically about their situation and try, systematically, to diagnose its causes. Hence the longstanding separation of political economy into “political science” and “economics” in academia, and the encouragement of academic microspecialization to neuter subjects like history and philosophy. It eventually enstupifies the masses with mindless but extremely lucrative entertainment of various sorts (think of sports and celebrity culture), even as the technology the productive base generates, often entertaining in its own right, begins to undercut labor’s employability both by shortening attention spans and because robots and AI programs will deliver output, often much more efficiently than human laborers.
It is not that capitalism results in inequality (which Piketty stressed), that is. Rather, Marx insisted, as a system it is deeply and necessarily irrational. It is wasteful, as its products fail to serve genuine human needs. The interests of capital and labor are at odds, because the system compels them to seek different things. Capital serves itself by maximizing profit, whether as an end in itself or to stay ahead of competing capital. Labor serves capital instead of itself while “at work,” so that while “at work” the laborer is little better than a machine (he has been “commodified”), and can be himself only when not “at work.” Organizations serving real human needs may price them out of labor’s reach (think: health care); housing, too, may be priced out of reach, so that houses stand empty while homeless people crowd the streets or set up shelters less than a mile away. Capital puts labor into the corporate cubicles it supplies to do the work that generates profits, having kept wages as low as possible and stultified education so as to create worker bees instead of, e.g., historians or philosophers, while failing to make use of many real talents and skills out there (we have all heard that adage about the many writers, artists, etc., who dare not give up their day jobs!). Marx spoke of alienation: labor is alienated not just from products it never sees but from itself, often having “learned” to “make do” with what it has. Many laborers even begin to identify with the interests of capital, seeing opportunities to rise in its organizations, telling themselves they are “happy.” Engels called this false consciousness.
Though often agitating to organize workers, Marx and Engels’s view was not that labor could choose a day, time, and place to overthrow capitalism. Here is where his followers began to go off the rails. Capitalism, as an engine of production whatever its faults, would have to grow until its spanned the entire globe — until there was nowhere of significance anyone could go to escape it. As it did, it would gradually divide the world into a tiny minority of “haves” — that of the global superelite or Ruling Class whose members controlled the levers of capital — and large populations of “have nots,” who controlled less and less of their economic and ultimately their personal lives. Machines, of course, do not ask for wages. Hence, the ideal for capital is to eliminate labor: the ultimate irrationality! Prior to that, the division and rising tensions between Ruling Class and ruled over would polarize the world and ripen conditions for socioeconomic revolution and for the wholesale replacing of capitalism with a political economy that eliminated the private property at the core of capitalism and capital accumulation as the goal of global economic activity. We would at last see a political economy that addressed human needs on their own terms and put us on a course towards true freedom which is only available when such needs are met.
Leaving this last aside, and whether or not it remains a pipe dream even in our times, the necessity of the globalization of capital accumulation is the aspect of Marx’s thought missed by everyone who believes, e.g., that the failure of the Soviet Union, or the embrace of state-capitalism by the Chinese, means that Marx’s thought itself fails and is now irrelevant.
It means, furthermore, that, e.g., so-called cultural Marxism fails, as if its architects in the Frankfurt School did not read their hero very well if they read him at all.
Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, etc., after all, appear to have believed Marxism had failed as a mere economic philosophy. Hence their efforts to merge Marxian analysis with other philosophies (i.e., Freudian psychoanalysis). To succeed, Marxism had to “capture the culture.” Indeed — and it is one of history’s great ironies — economic Marxism hit a roadblock that would remain as long as the Soviet Union stayed in business. Marx did not anticipate the resilience of capitalism, which would adopt amelioration: efforts to minimize labor’s suffering by permitting unions to organize and bargain with capital for better wages, working conditions, etc.; instituting minimum wage; attaching benefits such as Medicare to wages and developing other safety nets; etc. Cultural pseudo-Marxism has contributed to further destroying Western education and culture while not touching capital’s actual power arrangements. Identity politics, after all, amounts to ethnic minorities, feminists, homosexuals, and now transgenders, agitating for proportional representation on capital’s corporate boards instead of challenging capital’s legitimacy. Over a quarter century of identity politics has utterly obscured the real sources of women’s and minorities’ misery, and made a critical and careful discussion of Marx’s actual diagnosis of the present moment magnitudes harder!
As the leaders of the new interest in Marx doubtless self-identify as leftist, we find ourselves proposing that there are not one but two “lefts”: the old economic left consisting of Marx himself, Engels, and the few who understood him; and those struggling to recover his actual contributions, determine their relevance, and discuss their applicability today … and the academic / cultural left that followed the Frankfurt School through Marcuse and people ranging from Malcolm X to Gloria Steinem to present-day identity politics, in which tribalism is the solution and the “tribe” of straight white Christian men the collective villain (not capital or the process behind it!), both historically and in the present.
The latter dominates academic humanities today, and is another reason they cannot be taken seriously. The former barely exists, in or outside academia. The academic left (or more accurately the cultural left, as it now extends far beyond academia) has become, probably unintentionally through a combination of group-focused myopia and general carelessness, an enemy of the former that tries to read Marx with an eye to understanding him, staying close to what he actually said. Its purveyors would be promoting quite different things otherwise! We will see this in Part 2.