Why Marx Now? Part 2

[Author’s Note: I received complaints that Part 1 was too long. “TLDR,” said one person: Too Long Didn’t Read. Part of me is saddened by this. I wonder if essayists such as Albert Jay Nock, or James T. Farrell, or even H.L. Mencken, succinct when the situation called for it but capable of writing far lengthier and nuanced and demanding prose than anything found on this blog, could earn livings as writers today. We now have studies showing that technology, however much it has gifted us with communications across oceans via Skype or Zoom, is also shortening our attention spans and sapping our efficiency. I noticed this back when I was teaching: students who couldn’t go five minutes without checking their phones. Many of us, the first thing we do in the morning is go to Facebook or Twitter and start scrolling aimlessly, while important work sits undone. Thus another part of me sees dramatic confirmation of what I am investigating here. The idea that we are free and autonomous agents is undercut by the fact, for fact it is, that technology affects — even controls — some of our behavior, confirming that systemic coercion in  “free” societies is as real as gravity! Shortened attention spans are just one of many factors encircling us, manifesting as a whole what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin called inverted totalitarianism, which operates by reinforcing ritualistic and submissive behaviors of various sorts. Systemic coercion is both harder to see and diagnose than overt coercion — especially by those who define coercion as overt. A Marxian worldview is conscious of this, whatever else it gets wrong; the individualistic-atomistic worldview characteristic of most Libertarians is not. The latter is therefore naïve in crucial respects. Short attention spans make us vulnerable to the machinations of powerful interests, especially economic ones. That makes discussions like this all the more important! Those who cannot make the time or maintain sufficient attention to read and mentally process four or five pages of modestly demanding material will be buffeted and ultimately controlled by forces they do not see — whether they think so or not. Having said all this, I realize it will not bring new readers to this site, and so this will likely be the last piece I write of this length and complexity — completed mainly because I like to finish what I start.]

For Part 1, go here.

At this point, let’s pass the reins of the conversation into the hands of Yanis Varoufakis, surely one of the more interesting voices to surface over the last few years. Varoufakis’s work is essential reading for anyone curious about the recent interest in Karl Marx. There are several authors and/or activists we could consult, but this being an overview and not a comprehensive treatise, I will stick with Varoufakis to keep the discussion manageable.

Who is he? Best known for his role as former Finance Minister of Greece’s Syriza Party which was elected back in 2014 to end that country’s debt crisis. The Syrizas soon found themselves on collision course with the European Central Bank. Varoufakis resigned in frustration in the face of divisions within the new government as well as ECB power-playing, as Greece became a nationwide debtors prison.

In a 2015 essay, Varoufakis described himself as an “erratic Marxist,” more recently penning a searching introduction to the new edition of Marx’s and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto issued on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth (short version here).

He’s a trained economist who avoided succumbing to the academic illness of microspecialization. He survived by looking like a microspecialist: burying the Marxian lens through which he viewed current events, teaching the charts, graphs, and equations that form the warp and woof of most academic economics. His use of the term erratic Marxist means that while he agrees with the Marxian worldview in its outlines, he challenges Marx on various grounds, and by extension most thinking about him, whether by his followers or his detractors.

Varoufakis’s criticisms of Marx are far more interesting than his areas of agreement.

Marx committed two key errors, he argues, one of “omission” and one of “commission.” The Communist Manifesto presented a worldview in outline form, forcefully and elegantly stated, and Marx spent the rest of his life fleshing it out, galvanizing a following in the process. Within that following, there would appear a few power-hungry sociopaths who knew instinctively how to use Marx’s ideas for their own twisted advantage. As Varoufakis puts it, Marx “failed to give sufficient thought to the impact of his own theorising on the world that he was theorising about. His theory is discursively exceptionally powerful, and Marx had a sense of its power. So how come he showed no concern that his disciples, people with a better grasp of these powerful ideas than the average worker, might use the power bestowed upon them, via Marx’s own ideas, in order to abuse other comrades, to build their own power base, to gain positions of influence?”

Marx’s error of omission, in other words, led to the 1917 Revolution and the Soviet Union, and eventually Maoist China and Fidel Castro’s Cuba; also the rise of sadists like Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, the Kim Dynasty in North Korea, and other hellholes that the abusers of Marx’s ideas spawned. It is important to note: the sociopaths neither understood Marx nor cared. They were politicians, not intellectuals like Marx.

The Soviet error is not hard to see, in this case. Marx stated that history proceeds in stages. At any given stage, a specific set of economic arrangements is dominant, to be destroyed by the internal conflicts these arrangements generate (this is the dialectic). The resolution of these conflicts will generate the next stage, and no stages are skipped. The Leninists — the Stalinists even more — tried to do just this: build industrialized socialism on top of agrarian feudalism without going through the industrial capitalist wealth-generating stage. Marx had never denied the wealth-generating capacities of capitalism! The sociopaths were motivated by blind hatred of it, so they did not allow it to develop. The result was totalitarianism and mass deprivation, including mass murder of those who wouldn’t comply. Mao Tse-Tung repeated the mistake, the result being a “Cultural Revolution” for which we still do not have an accurate body count!

What has been unclear until recently is that these atrocities do not refute the Marxian worldview. They happened not because Marx’s ideas were followed; they happened because those who ascended to power in Marx’s name were sociopathic monsters who couldn’t have cared less about getting him right. (What ought to truly give us pause is how the sociopaths had help from Western sources of financing, who needed an “enemy” in order to build up a military machine that would be profitable for corporate suppliers of military equipment, defense contractors, and other such types: Eisenhower’s infamous military-industrial complex!)

To sum up, Varoufakis notes how Marx erred horribly by not anticipating that his ideas would be abused. If anything, he understates the matter (as does nearly everyone on the left).

He then identifies the second of Marx’s errors, the one of “commission.” Like many (most?) philosophers before him, at least since Descartes but going ultimately back to Plato, Marx often treated abstractions as more “real” than the concrete particulars of the world we live in: this despite his “historical materialism.” Varoufakis explains: “It was his assumption that truth about capitalism could be discovered in the mathematics of his models. This was the worst disservice he could have delivered to his own theoretical system. The man who equipped us with human freedom as a first-order economic concept; the scholar who elevated radical indeterminacy to its rightful place within political economics; he was the same person who ended up toying around with simplistic algebraic models, in which labour units were, naturally, fully quantified, hoping against hope to evince from these equations some additional insights about capitalism.”

One result was to cede the idea of freedom to the right — eventually, and disastrously, to neoliberalism. Rationality was also ceded to the right and to neoliberals, via the left’s focus on the supposed unfairness of capitalism — the fact that it generates inequality — at the expense of a focus on its irrationality and wastefulness, its being riddled with contradictions or, as we’ve called them, tensions. This is the Varoufakis who understands these models well!

He angrily asks of Marx’s ghost, “How could [you] be so deluded? Why did [you] not recognise that no truth about capitalism can ever spring out of any mathematical model, however brilliant the modeler might be? Did [you] not have the intellectual tools to realise that capitalist dynamics spring from the unquantifiable part of human labour: i.e., from a variable that can never be well-defined mathematically? Of course [you] did, since [you] forged those tools!” He then accuses Marx of having “coveted the power that mathematical ‘proof’ afforded him….”  That being the power of finality.

Varoufakis then teases out a basic tension in Marx’s thought: “a comprehensive theory of value cannot be accommodated within a mathematical model of a dynamic capitalist economy.” For Marx to acknowledge this, he would also have to acknowledge that the profitability of capitalist enterprises is not reducible to their capacity to extract labor from workers: “some capitalists can extract more from a given pool of labour or from a given community of consumers for reasons that are external to Marx’s own theory.”

This means, further, that Marx’s pronouncements contained an indeterminacy that rendered them provisional instead of final. This Marx could not accept. “This determination,” Varoufakis concludes this part of his discussion, “to have the complete, closed story, or model, the final word, is something I cannot forgive Marx for. It proved, after all, responsible for a great deal of error and, more significantly, authoritarianism. Errors and authoritarianism that are largely responsible for the left’s current impotence as a force for good and as a check on the abuses of reason and liberty that the neoliberal crew are overseeing today.”

What are Varoufakis’s prescriptions? These are even more interesting than his criticisms of Marx. The EU is in a crisis of its own making. It could implode. Varoufakis does not advocate revolutionary action: “the left,” he says, “must admit that we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapse of European capitalism would open up with a functioning socialist system. Our task should be twofold. First, to put forward an analysis of the current state of play that non-Marxist, well-meaning Europeans who have been lured by the sirens of neoliberalism, find insightful. Second, to follow this sound analysis up with proposals for stabilising Europe — for ending the downward spiral that, in the end, only reinforces the bigots.” That is, stabilize Europe in ways that will stave off the inevitable rising tides of nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment. This means shoring up capitalism, however this is accomplished, in order to buy time: even though “I shall not pretend to be enthusiastic about it.”

Varoufakis more than understands the consequences of this; it means supporting the globalization of capital despite “its less desirable ramifications … unbearable inequality, brazen greed, climate change, and the hijacking of our parliamentary democracies by bankers and the ultra-rich.” The Marxian view requires this. Remember: its logic is that capitalism must “go global” before conditions for revolution will be realized. This means supporting it — even present-day neoliberal capitalism-on-steroids!  Varoufakis comments on the irony of history: the faux Marxist Soviet Union had to collapse, and China had to embrace state-sponsored capitalism, before capitalism as a system could become truly global in scope!

Marx would have understood, even if the majority of those on the left did not, and do not. What did he say, after all, about so-called free trade: for centuries now, an instrument increasing capital’s reach? In “On the Question of Free Trade” (1848), having argued at length that free trade is just the freedom of capital to do as it pleases — “the freedom of capital to crush the worker” — by driving down wages as it drives up profits, Marx concludes: “in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.”

In other words, anyone who truly understands Marx and wants what Marx claimed he wanted will do almost the opposite of what most of the left is currently doing!

An enlightened left, that is, will support every “free trade” deal that comes down the pike! It will support every globalizing agreement, every job-eliminating technological advance, everything bringing about a world where capital is everywhere and encirclement by Mammon is inescapable. It will promote, as Marx implied, whatever will disrupt cultures, destroy traditions, undermine stable systems!

This, of course, dislocates and disorients, while impoverishing and demoralizing, masses everywhere. So Varoufakis qualifies: “… the trick is to help speed up capital’s development (so that it burns up like a meteor rushing through the atmosphere) while, on the other hand, resisting (through rational, collective action) its tendency to steamroller our human spirit … we push capital to its limits while limiting its consequences and preparing for its socialisation.”

There is a crucial tension in this last. Capitalism having achieved global reach, a movement large enough to overthrow it would have to have equal reach, or the equivalent. Technology makes this conceivable, but could it take place, organized and with hope of transformative victory, with labor impoverished if not totally disoriented and immiserated? Could revolution get started with capital controlling every resource (including the Internet), so that “only two classes remain standing: the class that owns everything and the class that owns nothing …”? There will be — I presume — a small class of highly mobile entrepreneurial types who are not tied directly to the system’s authority structures and may have made out like bandits during the period of global capitalization. I know such people. Their focus, while international, is not global in scope. It is on their private projects, and on those who, e.g., have paid to be mentored so that the process is duplicated. These “cowboy entrepreneurs,” we might call them, will have neither the motivation nor the organization to further the cause Varoufakis is talking about? For one thing, they like capitalism as they understand it, and see it (as did the economists of the Austrian school) as humanity’s highest achievement. Why wouldn’t they? They have thrived in it! If all of humanity were of their mindset, capitalism might become the kind of system the Austrians and other Libertarians envisioned: a technological and cultural Utopia of everyone dealing and trading freely with everyone else of their choice. But all of humanity is not of such a mindset, which must be cultivated and is clearly not for everyone. Thus we have the capitalism we have.

Varoufakis is smart enough not to make promises, as Marx and Engels did. He writes: “Humanity may succeed in securing social arrangements that allow for ‘the free development of each’ as the ‘condition for the free development of all.’ But then again, we may end up in the ‘common ruin’ of nuclear war, environmental disaster or agonizing discontent. In our present moment there are no guarantees. We can turn to the manifesto for inspiration, wisdom and energy but, in the end, what prevails is up to us.”

Hear that? It’s up to us.

So much for economic determinacy. If what occurs is “up to us,” then indeed the Marxian view is provisional, and there is nothing inevitable about revolution. It may be likely that accelerating neoliberal globalism will make enough people sufficiently miserable that they write, organize, launch “populist” revolts here and there, possibly gum up globalism’s works sufficiently to force it to slow up … or simply separate themselves and live out their lives on the margins of society: perhaps joining the “cowboy entrepreneurs” in not caring what occurs outside their bailiwicks as they’ve concluded they cannot affect it anyway.

I have argued elsewhere that technofeudalism, not some kind of socialism, is a more plausible “end game” for the trajectory we’ve pursued for the past 30 years. I am not alone with this prognosis. It is not what Varoufakis would like, but indeterminacy makes it possible. My essay predated Brexit and the Trump election, which were predicated on the hope of turning back from the globalist brink. Both are now struggling, the former against bureaucratic entanglements imposed by the EU, the latter against Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s circling sharks in “deep state” waters as well as Trump’s inexperience with the role into which history thrust him as well as the likelihood that his presidency has been compromised.

So-called “populism,” meanwhile, has been demonized in (corporation-controlled) mass media and attacked technologically via the algorithm changes made by Google, Facebook, and other information-controlling tech giants. Thus information and ideas favorable to “populism” simply do not appear in searches or on newsfeeds. Google and the social media giants are constantly improving their algorithms. If this continues, it will gradually undercut all informed resistance to globalism, understood as I have defined it: gradual movement, via “free trade” deals, other international agreements and the organizations they create, furthered by disruptive mass migration and capital flows across increasingly porous borders, towards a centralized world state answering to increasingly interlocked global corporate leviathans — possibly in the name of recovery after economic debacle, war, or just security measures.

Also undercutting “populism” at least in the West, is its association not just with the right, but with the authoritarian right — demonized as fascist, fallacious but rhetorically highly effective!

The left has no effective “populism” of its own. Bernie Sanders and his followers (e.g.) could not overcome the globalists in control of the Democratic Party, whose 2016 anointed candidate was going to be Hillary Clinton — no matter what! Arguably, globalist technocrats control the emocrats more effectively than they control the Republicans! The Democrats have added distractions like identity-politics and gender bending, protecting the legal right of women to kill their unborn children, gun control advocacy, etc. Those with real power couldn’t care less about such things.

The reality and long-term concerted activities of globalist power elites — superelites, I call them in Four Cardinal Errors, owners of capital and controllers of more visible political elites (“the state”) — would probably seem more evident had it not been for rigorous and largely successful propaganda campaigns branding such notions as “conspiracy theories.” This makes it easy to refuse to engage them, to keep one’s head in the sand.

I have to remind readers who have stuck with me to this point that I am not a materialist, much less a Marxist. Here I part company with Varoufakis and crew. Left to their devices, they may avoid repeating the mistakes Marx made, but they will have made a different one — one made by all secular political strategists who envision a new Tower of Babel different from the old ones. As a Christian philosopher, I believe we inhabit a fallen world (Rom. 3:23). What makes us miserable is not just socioeconomic conditions, but what resides in our hearts. Changing socioeconomic conditions will not change our hearts. Any Tower of Babel must therefore fall. We are not going to save ourselves with a new political economy, “revolutionary” or otherwise.

Why Marx now, in that case? Because the secular materialist standpoint reigns supreme, at least for now. If one works from that premise in an honest effort to see where it leads, and then asks which description of advanced civilization has more verisimilitude, one that views us as autonomous individuals running around on our own, actually making our own choices, or one that looks at systems and structures, sees encirclements and the systemic coercion of persons who, e.g., have had their livelihoods and possibly their health destroyed by these forces? The former ignores all the direct experiential support of many persons that militates in favor of the latter. Marx got a few things right by drawing attention to these forces and trying to describe their role in how advancing capitalist civilization works. I hope it is clear by now that the abuses of Marx’s ideas in Soviet Russia and Red China have nothing whatsoever to do with this.

Why Marx now? Because there is no use in pretending something fundamentally structural didn’t occur in 2007-09. We can single out policy decisions such as the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 which allowed commercial and investment banks to merge operations and opened the door to creating dangerous financial instruments (e.g., credit default swaps) and abuses of the public. But these did not emerge out of a vacuum. The rise and triumph of neoliberalism in the 1990s brought with it great systemic pressure on Congress to “deregulate”: freeing the Wall Street leviathans to do as they pleased. We saw the results. We are still seeing them.

Why Marx now? Because I do not think one has to be some kind of egalitarian to think something has gone seriously awry when capitalism does not just “go global” but reaches a point in which a group of people small enough to fit comfortably into a university auditorium controls more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population. It is difficult to blame secularists for tilting left and turning to someone like Marx for ideas, given that mainstream economists seem clueless, something clearly being amiss with official statistics pointing at “recovery” (3.9% U-3 unemployment with wages barely budging). Most secularists mean well ethically even if their presuppositions are wrong. The decent instinctively reject arrangements that dehumanize human beings. They look for alternatives.

What we’ve seen since the Soviet collapse isn’t “real” capitalism, say Libertarians. It is crony capitalism. “Real” capitalism will happen only if we abolish the state and allow the free market to operate. What they cannot tell us is how they propose to do such a thing; or, assuming it possible, what would prevent corporations from recreating the state almost immediately. Could We The People prevent it? We don’t have those kinds of resources!! Could the “cowboy entrepreneurs” do it? Living on the edges where their actual contact with the state is minimal, they aren’t all that interested!

Let’s face it. The idea of “abolishing the state” is simply absurd; and would doubtless be opposed anyway, e.g., by those who have paid into Social Security and Medicare their entire working lives and quite reasonably expect returns on what they consider an investment (not an “entitlement”) late in life: something that will be impossible if there is no “state” to administer it.

We are left with actually existing capitalism. In this fallen world, is there truly any other?

Marx and his latter-day followers help us see that actually existing capitalism is indeed vulnerable to the human weaknesses and peccadillos that brought us to this point, in which we realize that however we label the presently dominant political economy, even if we call it crony capitalism and refuse to call it real capitalism, it is as capable of generating totalitarian forms of life as its presumed opposite (socialism?). Systemic coercion is far more subtle than systematic coercion. Instead of creating conditions for the manning of machine guns, as with the minions of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc., systemic coercion encircles, so that noncompliance results in one’s eventually finding oneself unable to live a normal life. Decades ago, there were no computers, much less the Internet. Imagine trying to do business today without email! Notice, too, how Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard systemically coerce consumers into upgrading through refusing to service older editions of the one’s software and the other’s hardware, with the lifespans of each getting progressively shorter due to built-in obsolescence. Is this purposeful? Perhaps not. It keeps technical labor employed, and forces consumers to spend. Without these, actually existing capitalism falls into crisis. Is this system wasteful? Of course it is! What happens to used computers components? They go into landfills!

Ultimately we are seeing failures not just of capitalism, but of secular materialism given human nature as it is, and not what we may wish it were. There is more to life, and society, than its political-economic arrangements. Whether secular materialism is a stage an advancing civilization must go through in order to continue advancing is a very interesting question. Technological advances require great focus on the here-and-now, and on Mammon acquisition as a measure of what is working. Both make us more comfortable, moreover, and it takes a special kind of broad vision to recognize when one is trading personal freedom for comfort and convenience — not to mention collectivization. Suffice it to say, our civilization must transcend this stage, or its pretenses to have generated and preserved freedom in the face of, e.g., massive job losses and general precarity, will seem increasingly laughable — not to mention how its systems perturb surrounding ones and potentially threaten the habitability of what futurist R. Buckminster Fuller pointedly called Spaceship Earth. In this case, we see capitalism and socialism not as opposites but parts of a continuous process with secular materialism at its core. Reject secular materialism, and a range of new possibilities opens up!

But if we Christians know anything, it is that the secular world will reject us — which in arrangements like those just described consist more of efforts to hobble our capacity to earn a living and influence the conversation than through overt repression. Christianity, having been driven from public schools long ago through spurious establishment-of-religion arguments, is now banned by many corporations as “offensive” (although Muslim, Buddhist, and symbols of other religions including atheism are allowed in our “multicultural” workplaces).

My surmise, in this case: at present, technofeudalism is a more likely future, given continued secular globalist development and the lack of a coordinated, sustainable response to it. It will not be utterly dystopian: there will continue to be room on its edges for those “cowboy entrepreneurs” provided they present no threat to the power arrangements. Technofeudalism will prove unsustainable in the long run, of course, as with all Towers of Babel. It may stand until its founders’ children or perhaps their grandchildren get complacent, entitled, soft, careless, and possibly incompetent at responding to unexpected crises, e.g., a massive hurricane that leaves a devastated region in its wake, or perhaps an earthquake that levels a city of ten million people. The emperors will again be seen to have no clothes.

Then someone must rise from outside the power system, ready and able to lead when the emperors drop the ball. Such a person must be supremely focused in rejecting all the premises on which the order he is rebelling against was erected, including its metaphysical ones (materialism) and its worship of Mammon. And he must command a technology able to solve problems and supply abundance!

At present, corporate leviathans profit from scarcity. They will oppose a technology of abundance.

Mammon is worshipped in the West, because that is what its systems have required: endless growth, whether needed by humans or not, despite the finiteness of space and resources.

Only when we see Mammon tossed from its pedestal will we see the possibility of a truly humane world system that begins to eradicate poverty.

Could a world leader arise capable of all this?

A Christian will surmise at this point that the only Leader able to accomplish such a genuinely transformative and revolutionary goal will be Jesus Christ Himself.

[If you believe essays such as this are worth your time, please consider donating to support them.]

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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