Thursday, 30 January 2014

Should We Still Listen To Marx?

Coming from a free-society perspective it would seem that issues surrounding class, the state and capitalism have been somehow resolved. Class is extinct, reducing the size of the state is an accepted doctrine no matter what the issue at hand and there appears to be a consensus that the more voracious the the particular brand of capitalism is, the better results it will yield. Yet this in my opinion; this sense of confidence is misplaced. Ultimately Marxism is not the correct answer to these questions. However to simply dismiss a debate on the virtue that is is 'Marxist' or 'Socialist' runs the very real risk of ideological dogmatism.  This is a relatively new phenomenon, almost 170 years after the communist manifesto has been punished in 1848, political thinkers are only just beginning to turn their attention away from Marx. Arguably no matter what your political affiliation, we should all still listen to Marx.

A significant reason for this change is historical. Since the downfall of the USSR, the capitalist transformation of China and the death of truly left-wing political parties in most of the Western world. There seems to be a notion of victory among anti- communist thinkers. A strong sense that for want of a better phrase 'we have won'. However this marks a stark contrast to 60 years ago during the immediate post- war era. Most of the philosophical architects that have built the modern political landscape ultimately had Marx to answer to. Not just in the realms of academia but in answering to the very real economic successes of the USSR and the wider communist world. Throughout 1950s-60s Britain, alleviating poverty, building adequate housing and dismantling empire (albeit reluctantly) were defining features of the period. This contrasts sharply with the current political issues Britain is dealing with. Most of the key ideologues of the past 100 years have been shaped by Marxism. Far from being relics of the past that are best forgotten. These 20th century thinkers still shape our thoughts today- weather in favour or opposition to Socialism. To forget that is to abandon a fundamental set of concepts that shape our modern thinking.

The biggest casualty of this collective amnesia of Marx is that many seem to believe that anything that can be described as anti-communism by definition works... on the basis that it isn't what happened in the USSR. This sense of overconfidence is misplaced. The issues that Marx addressed over 150 years ago are still very relevant today. Global inequality has never been higher. It is true that in the West it is commonplace to have lots of material possessions that older generations could have dreamed of. However this does not excuse the fact that more and more the top 1% of the worlds rich are forming an impregnable global elite class. Middle level wages have all but stagnated since the 1980s and low level wages have plummeted. As well as ever rising inequality, successive western ( and increasingly non-western) governments put faith in unproductive consumption and financial engineering as an engine of economic growth. In many places this has decimated any notion of a functioning productive economy. Furthermore countries such as Germany, South Korea and Sweden that pursue active protectionist trade policies are now the global leaders in industry.

So this begs the question. All this time, was Marx right? The answer is ultimately no. It is truly a sign of the times that a capitalist ( A Marxist term) economy that practices protectionism can be considered 'Socialist'. The relative success of Germany, South Korea and Sweden among others owes to the fact that those nations pursue pacifist foreign policies and do not rack up huge amounts of debt financing a ridiculous military. In the case of South Korea, it pays for almost non of its own army. Also the Scandinavian countries and Germany take civil liberties much more seriously than Britain and the USA, thus you are much less likely to be impeded by government intrusiveness over your lifetime. A socialist system ultimately lies in coercion. A fallacy that society can be governed through violence, which even Marx's contemporaries criticized him for. Therefore Marx is not important because he has all the right answers... But he certainly asked the best questions. These questions remain unanswered today. We ignore them at our peril. 

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