Marx’s relevance today

Posted: 26 October 2015 in Uncategorized
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I understand: the only relevance of Karl Marx for the likes of the Wall Street Journal is to poke fun at Marxists who bristle at the idea of paying a fee to visit his gravesite.

“The Friends” of the cemetery are also anticipating an uptick in interest in Marx and in complaints from Marxists. This graveyard, in a leafy, genteel part of north London, typically sees around 200 visitors a day. Most ask to see Marx.

As it turns out, it’s that “uptick” in interest that is, in fact, more interesting.

Clearly, if all were going well for capitalism, there wouldn’t be any interest in Marx. But it isn’t, by a long shot—certainly not when global capitalism appears to be entering a new recession [ht: ja] and a variety of liberal supporters, from Robert Reich to Hillary Clinton, find it necessary to endeavor to “save capitalism from itself.”

Chris Dillow certainly thinks Marx is relevant today, for a variety of reasons: financialization, secular stagnation, the negative effects of inequality on productivity, and the situation of workers. In fact, Dillow argues, there’s a side of Marx that is particularly relevant for us today:

If you start from Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England and start reading Capital not from the beginning but from chapter 10, another Marx emerges – one whose thinking was rooted in empirical facts about the working lives of the worst off and in an urge to improve these. It is this Marx which is still relevant today.

Certainly, the interest shown by Marx (and, of course, Engels) in the real situation under capitalism of the working-class—aided by Leonard Horner’s “undying service to the English working-class”—puts most contemporary economists to shame.*

But there’s another side of Marx that is at least as relevant today: the critique of political economy. The fact is, Marx didn’t invent an entirely new method to analyze capitalism. He started where mainstream economists (in his day, the classical political economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo) left off and then, based on their own assumptions, developed his critique of their theories. Marx started with an “immense accumulation of commodities” (what today we call GDP) and “just deserts” (that is, the idea that everyone gets what they deserve and the distribution of income under capitalism is “fair”) and then showed how the growth of the wealth of nations was based on “the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour” on the part of capitalists. Therefore, what is an incontrovertible “good” for mainstream economists (more stuff, more commodities) can be seen as a “bad” (since it means more ripping-off of surplus-value by capitalists from the workers who create it). And that class exploitation can, in turn, be directly tied to financialization, secular stagnation, the negative effects of inequality, the situation of workers under capitalism, and much more.

Both mainstream economic theory and capitalism have, of course, changed since middle of the nineteenth century. That’s why the theoretical claims and empirical observations contained in Capital can’t simply be transferred to our own time. What is relevant, it seems to me, is the example of the “ruthless criticism” of political economy—the critique of both mainstream economic thought and of capitalism itself.

That two-fold critique, as exemplified in Marx’s writings, is precisely what is relevant today.

*Of course, their own Adam Smith puts them to shame, as in this passage on the negative effects of the division of labor on workers from Book 5 of the Wealth of Nations:

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

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