You know something is incongruently wrong when The Economist, a publication found upon promoting the doctrine of economic liberalism, prints an article which contains in its title; “Karl Marx has a lot to teach today’s politicians”. Oh how I envisage Marx, who himself denounced The Economist as an aristocratic functionary breaking into bouts of hysterical laughter at the sheer visibility of dialectics at play here. For dialectics describes the process by which a moment of progression in social reality simultaneously reinforces that which it is perceived to leave behind.
So here in lies the irony embedded in the aforementioned article; the attribution that the only value to be found in Marx’s thinking is within its insight into the most tangible, detectable characteristics of modern capitalism – overpaid CEO’s, monopolies and financialisation. Because controlling these three elements of such a complex, adaptive system as capitalism will bring forth a new era of stability and economic egalitarianism? Even if we did manage to tackle such issues which would undoubtedly be perceived as socially and economically progressive, are we not in fact saving capitalism from itself by ensuring the continuity of what Geoffery Hodgson calls ‘necessary impurities’?
Yet this is not the debate I wish to enter into, rather I wish to discuss what really is the value of Marxism today?
In 1989 Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay which explored whether or not the transformations they were witnessing, the fall of the Soviet Union, a supposedly persistent trend in the democratisation of former authoritarian states, the universality of consumerism, and the expansion of economic liberalism, constituted as signifying the end of history. His answer, pretty much. Fukuyama believed that on the grand structural level of social organisation, economic liberalism in precedence with political liberalism was to be the end point of structural development and embodied the “universal homogenous state” to borrow one of his favourite phrases.
Although the end of history thesis is steeped in idealism, a critique even made by its author, it is still the dominant ideological framework for western political elites today. A very interesting book which discusses this prevalence, but with far less emphasis on its economic paradigm, is David Ranciman’s The Confidence Trap. In this work, he argues that western liberal democracy is fatalistic in the way it causes unbridled confidence in the virtues of democratic governance. So much so that the zealous and unquestioning appreciation of the current democratic form blinds us from trouble on the horizon. For it is the very fact that democracy has survived a battle with its opponents which fosters the overconfidence it enjoys.
Likewise, the same interpretation can be applied to capitalism. History demonstrates the adaptive, creative nature of capitalism to sustain its self. It has given rise to increased living standards for millions and it enjoys the belief by many that it can be democratically controlled.
It is my opinion that the true value of Marxist thought today lies within the opposing answer to Fukuyama’s The End of History. No, capitalism is not the only game in town and the role Marxism can play in contributing to this realisation stands testament to its worth. Marxism can provide the basis to challenge the fatalism apparent in the political and economic paradigm we live in today. Its worth is not to be solely found in the critique of modern capitalisms tenants, but also in the radicalism it inspires.
I can already hear the critics furiously demanding an explanation as to how someone can be so stupid as to propose that a historically determinist doctrine such as Marxism could challenge the fatalism described above. Although I do not think highlighting the indeterminacy which characterises contemporary accounts of capitalism in crises would change their hypothetical minds, to serve up this criticism would be to miss the point. While there are some blatant limitations to the value of Marxism, primarily its inability to provide a desirable alternative to capitalism, its value is to be found in how it contributes to comprehending the possibility that capitalism is not the endpoint. The fact that it does not provide a delineated social order should not mean that it is worthless, for when it was believed it could, it produced the totalitarian nightmare that was the USSR.
Marxism helps us look beyond the ideational framework which gives structure to the world around us. At the very least, it contributes to the development of one’s critical faculties and encourages the propensity to air skepticism towards dominant narratives and trends.
By Matthew Mckenna
1 https://www.economist.com/news/britain/21721916-shadow- chancellors-comment-
provoked-scorn- yet-marx- becomes-more- relevant-day- labour
2 Marx, Karl (1852). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
3 Hodgson, G.M., Itoh, M. and Yokokawa, N. eds., (2001) Capitalism in evolution: global
contentions– East and West. Edward Elgar Publishing.
4 Fukuyama, F., 1989. The end of history?. The national interest, (16), pp.3-18.
5 Fukuyama, F., 2014. At the ‘end of history’ still stands democracy. The Wall Street Journal, pp.06-14.
6 Runciman, D., 2014. Confidence Trap. Princeton: Princeton University Press.