Karl Marx born 200 years ago

Yesterday here (today still in Europe) is the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday.

Karl Marx 001.jpg

Marx in 1875

from Wikipedia:

Born in Trier (in West Germany near Luxembourg) to a middle-class family, Marx studied law and Hegelian philosophy. Due to his political publications, Marx became stateless and lived in exile in London, where he continued to develop his thought in collaboration with German thinker Friedrich Engels and publish his writings.

His best-known titles are the 1848 pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, and the three-volume Das Kapital. His political and philosophical thought had enormous influence on subsequent intellectual, economic and political history and his name has been used as an adjective, a noun and a school of social theory.

Marx’s theories about society, economics and politics—collectively understood as Marxism—hold that human societies develop through class struggle. In capitalism, this manifests itself in the conflict between the ruling classes (known as the bourgeoisie) that control the means of production and the working classes (known as the proletariat) that enable these means by selling their labour power in return for wages.

Marx’s prediction that capitalism would collapse and would be replaced by a new system of socialism has failed to happen so far.

Stuart Jeffries (Guardian): Two centuries on, Karl Marx feels more revolutionary than ever

The other day I stood at the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate cemetery in north London, wondering if he has anything say to us today, 200 years after his birth, on 5 May 1818. “Workers of all lands unite,” reads the tombstone. But they haven’t – the solidarity of the exploited, which Marx took to be necessary to end capitalism, scarcely exists.

“What the bourgeoisie produces, above all, are its own gravediggers,” he and Friedrich Engels wrote 170 years ago in The Communist Manifesto. “Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Not really: capitalism today is rampant.

In the kind of historical irony that the philosopher Hegel called the cunning of reason, capitalism has even co-opted its gravediggers to keep it alive: China, the world’s biggest socialist society (if only ostensibly) supplies capitalist enterprises with cheap labour that undercuts other workers around the world.

So is Marx finished? Not at all. For me, what makes Marx worth reading now is not his Panglossian prognoses, but his still resonant diagnoses. For instance, he and Engels foresaw how globalisation would work. “In place of the old wants,” they wrote, “satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.”

That’s why Chinese workers make products we never conceived would exist, let alone that we would covet, and that would convert us into politically quiescent, borderline sociopathic, sleepwalking narcissists. That’s right – I’m talking about iPhones.

I find it hard to read the first few pages of The Communist Manifesto without thinking that I live in the world he and Engels described. “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” We inhabit a world just like that, only more intensely than Marx and Engels dared imagine.

Marx didn’t foresee Facebook, but he grasped the essentials of Mark Zuckerberg’s business model, certainly better than American senators did at last month’s congressional hearings. “The bourgeoisie,” Marx and Engels wrote, beautifully, “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self- interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”

Facebook, not to mention Amazon and Google, have made humans into exploitable assets. Which is some kind of genius.

Humans are not exploitable assets here at Your NZ, but stuff posted online could be.

But it’s what Marx wrote in Das Kapital in 1867 on commodity fetishism that, I think, is most painfully relevant to us today. By that term he meant how the ordinary things that workers produce – iPads, cars, even the spate of new books commemorating Marx’s 200th birthday – become, under capitalism, bewitchingly strange. Just as in some religions an object invested with supernatural powers becomes a fetish for those who worship it, so commodities under capitalism are accorded magical powers.

Until they become worthless.

In such a world it’s easy to collapse, as many of the Frankfurt School did, into the philosophical quietism that drove Marx nuts. “The philosophers,” he wrote in words also emblazoned on his tombstone, “have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

That remains the challenge. We need Marx to help us understand the state we’re in, though that is only a prelude to the bigger struggle, for which his writings are less helpful: namely, how to get out of it.

Change happens.

But revolutions, or major changes to basic systems and infrastructure of countries and the world, don’t generally happen. We have gradual evolution, with a few tweaks and hiccups here and there.

Do we need major change to or away from capitalism?

If so, can it be made to happen? Each of us can make small changes towards a socialist system, but history has shown that from communist countries and groups of countries to hippy style communes they collapse due to power struggles and freeloaders.

Or do we just chug away waiting for capitalism to collapse and try to make something new out of the mess?


The final stages of capitalism

Is capitalism going to come to an end?


Is capitalism in it’s final death throes? Some seem to hope that it is.

But maybe not. China, now one of the world’s biggest economic powers, has moved quickly from failed socialism to a capitalist-socialist hybrid.

Even the most capitalist countries have some degree of socialism.

Political and financial systems will continue to evolve in a very complex world. It’s hard to see an end in the foreseeable future to capitalism or some sort of non-state monetary systems.