Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Marx @ 200: Concluded

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 ...


Bill Quango MP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Quango MP said...

John McDonnell knows full well that nothing will 'pay for itself.'
Quite obviously, if it did, then every government before now would have done the things he wants to do. Reduced taxes to 2% and been elected forever more.

Nicola Sturgeon knows full well an independent Scotland would be a far worse off country for a very long while, yet insists it would not be.

The Greens know full well that their fantasy green energy would impoverish millions.

Theresa May knows a Customs Partnership won't solve any of the problems she needs to solve.

All continue on with their plans.

At least Marx did his research before blindly carrying on in the face of certain knowledge that his theories were rubbish.

Thud said...

As mentioned before my wife is a 'boat person' her large family fled Marxism and many died in the effort, it always ends in poverty and death.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe all capitalists dream of cornering their markets": surely Smith made the point long before. There was no chance, I imagine, that he was the first to do so.

Anonymous said...

The take-home from Marxism is "follow the money", which I'm pretty sure wasn't an original Karl insight.

Maybe Marx (and Freud) were just giving their host societies a brilliantly seductive but poisonous intellectual pill?

Anonymous said...

OT - BBC full of yet another Putin murder, Arkady Babchenko. Sounds like reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated. Roth is the Guardian's Moscow correspondent, or that's what his twitter says.


Dan said...

The simplest refutation of the works of Karl Marx is simply to look at his predictions and see which came true. This is easy to sum up: NONE of Marx's predictions actually happened!

The predictive value of Karl's writings has therefore been tested by time and shown to be zero. Furthermore, the ideology of Marxism, namely that the proleteriat should seize the means of production from the tiny upper classes, fails and it is the Austrian economists who were the first to point the flaw here.

A monetary economy only functions if you know what the value of things are. If you remove pretty much all markets, then you wind up trying desperately to work out how much any particular good or service is worth, and mostly getting this wrong. When you ascribe an incorrect value to a good or service, you get either a shortage or a glut; either is a sign that your planned economy isn't working.

Marxism and Socialism are thus very difficult ideologies to implement simply because you never have enough information to run a planned economy efficiently, and rival nations running market economies will always be more efficient due to their markets. The effect of having a market economy right next door to a Marxist one is profoundly destabilising for the Marxist one; the market economy will ruthlessly exploit surpluses and gluts of commodities in the Marxist economy if it is permitted to, and the people in the Marxist area will then watch their more enlightened foreign neighbours getting rich at their expense.

This is effectively what started to happen between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world, until the Soviets erected barriers to trade to try to exclude the influence of market economies.

Modern Socialist politicians seem to have abandoned much of this ideology, and now subsist on the politics of envy together with the idea that if enough taxes are raised, perhaps the whole thing will hang together for a bit.

Bill Quango MP said...

My oft repeated, yet still pertinent quote from the ex-ussr senior politicians coming from Gorbachev’s Russia to learn the tricks of the west.

Amazed at the untold plenty that was available in any London corner shop, tone manager asked
“ who is it who decides on the Daily amount of bread required for distribution? “

To which the answer was,

“Erm...nobody really.”

Jer said...

My wife has a doctorate in Economics from Moscow sate university, so essentially a doctorate in Marxism.

She was asked by someone in a different department if she'd thought about doing some lecturing in the Cambridge economics department, what with them all being Marxists.

Her reply, "Oh no, I couldn't do it... it's all bollocks"

hovis said...

Jer: the same answer can be applied to about much economics wherever it is taught e.g. look at the accuracy of the DSGE models - astounding !

Dick the Prick said...

Soz Nick, but in response to BQ's featured comment on Going Postal (it's where it's @ kidz) is there a possibility that May is being purposefully shit like Cameron used to do. I think this blog ad passim has always had a fair amount of awareness that Cameron & Osborne did pretty well on the double bluff and I remember being genuinely amazed when some of Cameron's faux pas turned out roses - is it possible that May has gone uber shit on purpose?

Where did Blue Eyes go again? Did he strop off like I suspected. I only saw the tail end of it. He was a good lad.

Anonymous said...

DtP - I suppose May's uber-shitness may be a brilliant wheeze to stymie Brexit - but she's shown no previous evidence of strategic competence.

Maybe the last word on Marxism should go to the great biologist E.O. Wilson, whose 'Sociobiology' got him the Charles Murray treatment back in the 70s.

"Marxism? Great theory. Wrong species." (Wilson is the world authority on ants.)

Electro-Kevin said...

It's not the Marxism that supporters like but the revolution that comes with it.

The journey rather than the arrival.

Useless dreamers - who can't cut it in the commercial world - want to tear up the old order and assert themselves at the top of the newly planted tree.

The problem comes when others are taken in by their promises of revenge and this is what we are seeing with ageist (anti boomer) propaganda because of a generation in the renter trap - stuck paying rents far higher than the mortgages they cannot deposit on and with no stake in our country.

Chair(wo)man May is not slave to Brexit extremists but to socialists purporting to be Conservatives in her own party.

It's a matter of whether we get Marxism Lite or Marxism Full Fat.

"Young workers of Britain unite. All you have to give up is your brains."

Electro-Kevin said...

"Where did Blue Eyes go again? Did he strop off like I suspected. I only saw the tail end of it. He was a good lad."

I don't think I helped.

I expect he's doing well and I sincerely hope so. It would be great to see him back.

Nick Drew said...

BE is still around for a beer or two!

It's not the Marxism that supporters like but the revolution that comes with it

absolutely, Kev: (hence It’s not difficult to see how attractive this is to a certain kind of Murdoch-despising malcontent, and how easily it translates into an ideology for a bitter, revanchist political programme)

and what I call the 'transgressionist' tendency on the left, being in awe and envy of actually violent people ("You only have to look at the little faces of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the photos with Gerry Adams to conclude that they’d have been almost erotically impressed by the whiff of cordite" - Marina Hyde)

Love the E.O.Wilson quote - thanks, anon

Dick - the shitness of May is a big topic ... but am inclined to go with anon's "she's shown no previous evidence of strategic competence"

+ she has showm ample evidence of craven weakness, blind stupidity, and a dreadful concomitant tendency to be bullied / flattered / otherwise impelled to do whatever the last person to sit on her wants

Electro-Kevin said...

People's Poets love Marxism.

It makes them relevant.

They romanticise struggle and recreate struggle where it has been irradicated.

Anonymous said...

Best thing about this Post is the drawing. Nice one ND.

Anonymous said...

I'm less worried about Marxism than I am about 'Communitarianism,'Agenda 21/2030 and all that goes with it.

Electro-Kevin said...

Wow. A stunning impression. I hadn't noticed it was an ND.