So now for an assessment of anything we can salvage from Marx**.
Firstly, he is clearly right that capitalists often seek to establish monopolies. Maybe all capitalists dream of cornering their markets. But this is hardly unique to capitalism. Monarchs since time immemorial have either maintained for themselves, or sold to others, monopolies on all manner of goods, generally with serious profit in mind. Any intelligent ‘capitalist’ government - and indeed intelligent business people themselves – know this and, for the long-term good of the system, resist it. (On a personal note I have spent a large part of my commercial career fighting monopolies in the energy sector, and the constant threat of their re-emergence.) We may agree that, on a cyclical basis perhaps, there are periods in the history of the last 200 years when some pretty baleful monopolies have taken root – often in newly-hatched industries when governments and regulators were not on their guard (e.g petroleum in the Rockefeller era; and various aspects of IT more recently). But it’s a big stretch to say that capitalism (or any other system harbouring greedy people) moves inevitably towards its own destruction because of this ‘tendency’.
Secondly, Marx’s colourful account of how the Revolution comes about has an exciting narrative flow, with some obvious points of contact with the here-and-now. With some fairly extreme (though hardly unprecedented) concentrations of wealth forming after a period of relative egalitarianism, and plenty of dramatic developments in automation to be cited, several of the revolutionary preconditions Marx listed could be seen as starting to stack up. Given the seriousness of what's at stake - and with John McDonnell waiting in the wings, Heaven help us - it behoves us to do a bit more than dismiss it all outright.
But, frankly, Marx's 'decline and fall' prediction has the ring to it of one of the more grandiose science-fiction plots set in a galaxy some little distance away. One can certainly see some localized issues that may be described under the headings of his preconditions for Revolution – particularly in ‘the west’; and, yes, there’s political turmoil aplenty. But there have been several even more scary periods of political crisis in the past 150 years. Technology and automation have been steadily marching forward for centuries, without any manifest self-destructive end-game in sight. ("Drones predicted to give British economy a £42bn lift by 2030" - from today's Grauniad!) And – gigantic surpluses? Wholesale unemployment among the 99%? Worsening immiseration on a global scale? Elevate your gaze from parochial worries, you western lefties: a large part of the globe is getting steadily better off!
We are no more compelled to accept Marx’s prediction for how all this ‘inevitably’ plays out, than we are to buy Plato’s account of how “tyranny naturally arises from democracy”. We can, in the spirit of heeding the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, find the respective accounts salutary, and hopefully recognize the potential dangers being described - so as to avoid them by adroit political actions. But there is no obvious reason to accept any of Marx’s forecasts as being preordained. (Quite the reverse: the history of capitalism has been one of endless surprises, mutations and adaptability, to the dismay of embittered lefties. As the more-or-less-marxist American philosopher Brian Leiter acknowledges: “Marx misjudged the smarts of the capitalist class”. It’s worth noting also that marxists’ belief that history is on their side can be a major psychological weakness, since it gives them an excuse for taking their feet off the pedal just when they may be in danger of nosing ahead. I have long thought that one of the reasons the Soviets didn’t come across the IGB at their point of maximum pre-Reagan military advantage – pace Mr BQ - was that the risk seemed altogether disproportionate when they ‘knew’ it would all come their way eventually in any case.)
Finally, and for me the most interesting, we come to Marx’s thesis that wage-slaves can be (and maybe mostly are) fundamentally deluded about what’s really going on as regards both their own exploitation and their best economic and human interests. In this, he is adding to a characteristically C19th strand of new(ish) thinking emanating most notably from Nietzsche, Marx himself and Freud. These Germanic gentlemen all surmised that in important ways we have reasons to be systematically suspicious about what people say – and indeed what they actually believe - about themselves and their own feelings, drivers, reasons, motives etc.
Each thinker has a different angle, and they are all well worth considering. Freud emphasizes the importance of ‘suppressed’ sexual drives and childhood experiences. Nietzsche is difficult to summarise but, in just a few words, reckons that what we might term the articulated conscious is, for complex reasons he discusses at great length, a systematically warped version of what is ‘really going on inside’.
And Marx, of course, thinks that the ‘false’ consciousness of the proletariat has been systematically moulded to suit the economic and survival interests of a manipulative capitalist class, aimed in particular towards a compliant quietism amongst the workers in the face of their own growing misery. (Personally, I suggest that underpinning all of these three accounts in their Victorian context is the work of Darwin, establishing the idea of blind, unconscious processes affecting the fates of organisms and species, ‘whatever they think is happening’. Marx explicitly acknowledged Darwin’s contribution to his own thinking: his work “is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle”.)
Darwin aside, though, just how new is Marx’s economic determinism as it impacts subliminally on individuals and classes? There are clear pre-echoes in Adam Smith (another authority recognized by Marx), for example when he writes that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” – however much the butcher may protest to his customers, or indeed to himself, of a higher purpose (or “mission”, as so many companies these days fatuously term their commercial motivation) behind his business endeavours.
We can accept Marx’s far-ranging social-psychological insight on these matters at face value, without imagining he has come up with the most profound, innovative or definitive contribution on the subject. It isn't the preserve of lefties to be caustic about Rupert Murdoch, or the BBC, or any other agency seeking to throw a warm suffocating blanket over honest efforts to see the truth prevail, whether those efforts be directed towards economic relationships or anything else an ‘establishment’ would choose to deflect attention from.
So: an interesting thinker, is old Karl - but the aspects of his voluminous output that survive critical review are not particularly, ahem, revolutionary. Nor does his fame rest upon those; but rather, on the overblown 'scientific' political predictions he makes that are such tosh, so gratifying and stimulating for all manner of bitter social malcontents, and that have made him a quasi-religous cult figure.
We may yet, however, have to suffer once more from his baleful cult.
**If it seems a bit rich to summarise in a few paragraphs the work of a man that some spend their whole lives studying - then take a look at Don Cox's comment on yesterday's thread ...