Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The 2008 Financial and Banking Crisis: Was Karl Marx Right After All?

Read here article by Philip Collins on Times Online-UK

Read here related article in malaysiakini , "Credit crunch - welfare for the rich" by Mike Lim Mah Hui

As financial markets crash, the reputation of Karl Marx soars.

So has Karl Marx's time come at last?


Philip Collins

The world financial system is melting down. The credit markets have ceased trading. The State has taken a controlling stake in some of the banks. Governments are guaranteeing bank deposits. People are contemplating putting their money in tins or buying gold if they can afford it. The capitalists are losing their jobs and the workers are losing their property.

Could it be that Karl Marx's hour has come at last?

The 40,000 pilgrims who have made their way this year to Trier, the Prussian town where Marx was born in 1818, clearly think so.

So do the unrepentant Marxist professors who have taken to the airwaves to declare that they knew this would happen all along. Finally, you can hear them think, the world is having the good grace to live down to their opinion of it.

Marx's Das Kapital

And perhaps so do the readers who have recently bought Marx's great text of economic analysis, Das Kapital.

Booksellers in Berlin have been quoted as saying that it has been flying off the shelves.

Even if it has, Das Kapital will probably fly back on to them quick enough. This is a book that will be read long after Milton and Shakespeare have been forgotten - only not until then.

It isn't exactly an easy read. Generally, for most people, books with equations are best avoided. The introduction is comprehensible to the layman and, in its last few pages, it ends on a high. In the middle, it gets a bit sticky. Das Kapital is a reminder of Philip Larkin's definition of the English novel: a beginning, a muddle and an end.

Marx's Arguments on Capitalism

But Marx does seem to have been on to something. His basic point is that there is some good news and some bad news. He gave you the bad news first: capitalism is dreadful. The workers are exploited and the capitalists get rich at their expense. So far, so Lehman Brothers.

The good news was that the bad news was bound to come to an end. Capitalism wasn't just nasty, it was doomed. It would collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions. A bit like Lehman Brothers.

Marx's anger wasn't directed principally at individual capitalists. After all, his great German collaborator and friend, Friedrich Engels, was a Manchester mill owner.

If it hadn't been for Engels, Marx would never have finished the book. In fact, if it hadn't been for Engels, Marx would never have finished his evening meal. Marx took his distaste for capital to the extent that he never had any. Whether or not the irony was deliberate, he wrote his text condemning capitalism while living off its charity.

The exploitation was bigger than any one person. It was endemic in a society in which class oppressed class. The bourgeoisie, those who owned the means of production, lorded it over the workers. The proletariat, whose only commodity was their labour, were forced to sell themselves like chattels. Thus were they alienated from their true nature.

Everything else - art, culture, religion - were just so many diversions laid on by the producers to keep the minds of the workers off their revolutionary destiny. To put it in our terms: it was the economy, stupid.

And the economy powered history with a capital H. Every era gives way to something better, in an inevitable march to communism. The primitive communism of tribal societies yields to slavery which is, in turn, replaced by feudalism.

The feudal merchants become capitalists, exploit the workers and inspire the proletariat to revolution. The interim management of the workers then produces the eternal administration of the socialist Utopia. Once the process gets going, it's unstoppable.

But this is where the comparison ends. It doesn't really sound a lot like the credit crunch. It is hard to think of investment bankers as the benighted proletariat labouring under the burden of false consciousness. If they are exploited at all, then the bonuses probably soften the blow. Many layers of management, most of it very highly paid, has inserted itself in the gap between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

And there's not much sign of revolution from the working class. Maybe if the Government tweaks the flexible-working arrangements it might start.

Marx's 'The Communist Manifesto'

It's when he gets into predicting the future that Marx really starts to go wrong. As a prophet, he is strictly in the tealeaf reading category.

Very conveniently, he makes it easy for us. Marx sets out, in The Communist Manifesto, the ten steps to communism.

This book, remember, wasn't just a how-to guide. It wasn't the ten habits of highly revolutionary people. It was a supposedly scientific account of what would happen. So it's perfectly reasonable to score Marx out of ten. He doesn't, in truth, do all that well.

Marx said that there would be a heavily progressive system of income tax and you could say we have that. He said that the state should take control of the supply of credit. The £37 billion bail-out of banks is not quite what Marx envisaged but we can stretch a point.

Marx demanded free public education for all children and an end to child labour in factories, a practice that capitalists decided they could, after all, do without. The demand for state control of factories has not come to pass but Marx coupled that, rather illogically, with cultivating wastelands according to a common plan. John Prescott often talked a lot about using brownfield rather than greenfield sites for development and that has to be worth half a point.

But some of the big predictions still look on the far horizon. A British people obsessed with the housing market have never paid the slightest attention to the slogan that Marx borrowed from Proudhon - all property is theft. All estate agency is theft, perhaps.

The rights of inheritance, far from being abolished, have been strengthened, mostly because the British hang on so tenaciously to their property that they don't let go even when they are dead. We have yet to confiscate all the property of emigrants and rebels (although the freezing of assets of Icelandic banks and terrorists is at least making a start).

And, notwithstanding the BBC, Network Rail and the re-regulation of the buses, we haven't really seen the centralisation of the means of communication and transportation in the hands of the state. Neither is there much sign of an army of agricultural workers in a nation in which agriculture now account for less than 1 per cent of GDP.

Finally, the state has not taken charge of the distribution of people between the town and the country. Should anyone be odd enough to want to live in the English countryside, they are allowed to.

Marx's score is a generous three and a half out of ten. The internet is awash with lunatics who believe that most countries are already practising communism without realising it. But, in fact, if the end is coming, we are only just over a third of the way there.

Marx should have the last word. “From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.” Not Karl but Groucho.


Was the Left vindicated?

From Martin Jacques, Visiting professor at Renmin University, Beijing

This crisis shows that capitalism is not only a dynamic system, but one that is inherently prone to crisis. In that sense, Marx was, and is, right. During each period of economic growth and prosperity, from Lawson to Brown, for example, this is forgotten, amid boasts that boom and bust have been banished for ever. This crisis has once more confounded such boasts. But it is not only Marx who has been validated by this crisis, but Keynes, too. For 30 years we've been told that the market always knows best and that the Government is at best a necessary evil. In this crisis we see that the market can result in huge distortions with calamitious results; and that only the Government is big enough and legitimate enough - as the representative of all the people - to intervene and sort the mess out. It marks the end of the neo-liberal era and the return of social democracy.
From Professor Eric Hobsbawm, Marxist historian

The interest in Marx seems a vindication, as his analysis of capitalism put its finger on globalisation and periodic crises and instabilities. Over the past few decades people thought the market would sort everything out, which seemed to me a statement of theology rather than reality.

It's good that people are taking this kind of analysis more seriously than they have for a long time because it breaks with the conventional analysis that has dominated most governments and a lot of ideologies over the years. It's fun to discover that what one has been saying for a long time, and others have been pooh-poohing, is being taken seriously.

But that isn't the important thing; that is to recognise that a phase of this particular world system has passed and we must think of another one. It will take a long time for it to settle down, but there is no way we're going back to where we were in the 1980s and 1990s, and that's a good thing.

From Frank Furedi, Professor of sociology, Kent University, founder of the British Revolutionary Communist Party in the 1970s (disbanded in 1998)

Marx's fundamental insight into the transient character of society's arrangements has been pretty well demonstrated by recent events and the shifting contours of European history.

In many respects what he saw was the co-existence of powerful destructive forces with powerful constructive forces within the capitalist system. But one must remember that he's a 19th-century thinker who, along with other important thinkers - Adam Smith among them - provided important signposts on understanding our society. They're of limited use in the capacity to find your own way in the world, and younger generations must rethink problems for themselves.

The danger is that people such as Marx provide answers to the questions that we're all asking, but we shouldn't begin with the answers: we must begin with the right questions.

From Mick Hume, The Times's libertarian Marxist columnist

Marx was right to identify and analyse the tendency towards crises within capitalism, but he did not predict the system's “inevitable” collapse.

Today too many people who have never read or understood Marx are trying to turn him into an anti-capitalist Nostradamus who supposedly predicted it all, a soothsayer rather than revolutionary social scientist. Marx always emphasised that the resolution of a crisis would ultimately depend on political factors: that man makes his own history, although not in circumstances of his own choosing.

It is still the case that there is no alternative, no political contestation about the future of society. Instead, whether from rightwing Republicans in the US or Labour here, we just have state-run managerial politics aiming to preserve as much of the status quo as possible. The rest of us are reduced to passive spectators rather than active political agents.

Marx would not be laughing in his grave or dancing on anybody else's as some suggest. If anything I think he'd a be a bit depressed about missed opportunities. And anybody who takes pleasure in human misery is an idiot.

From John McDonnell,MP for Hayes and Harlington

Das Kapital and Wages, Prices and Profit should be issued to all government ministers as the definitive guides to the causes of capitalism in crisis; they will give them an understanding of the inherent exploitative nature and instability of an economic system that is putting thousands of people on the dole queue each month and making many homeless.

I'd suggest that they then read Robert Owen's work on co-operatives, Antonio Gramsci's prison writings on winning the battle of ideas, Ernest Mandel's Late Capitalism and Ralph Miliband's Socialism for a Sceptical Age.

From Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas

I'm worried about this gleeful pseudo- Marxist critique of the system; there's a vulgarisation of Marxism going on. It isn't some kind of religion in which you have divine retribution, with bankers now on the receiving end.

People seem to be refusing to acknowledge that this means a period of enforced austerity for ordinary people. Owning your house is not a sign of psychological flaw; it could be deemed aspirational.

Marx's most profound statement was about the role of human agency in change. Society can't change unless you have a clear idea of politics and ideas, and that requires people to see themselves as history-makers, to be actively participating, not to be in a period of political disengagement. So the new interest confirms a passivity in a way, and the idea of dinner-party Schadenfreude is really sick.

From Alexei Sayle

Mortgage holders of the world, unite

What would Marx have made of the credit crunch if he were still living?

Karl Marx was an inveterate fiddler with his words and a compulsive misser of deadlines, so there are many inconsistencies and a few downright contradictions in the holy texts of Marxism.

However, it's not too speculative to say that until recently Karl would have been feeling a bit down: just as if Jesus had ever met the Rev Ian Paisley or any number of popes he would have given up on the whole “son of God” message and become a Pilates teacher, so Marx would have been appalled by the murderers, sociopaths and kleptomaniacs who oppressed half the world in the name of his philosophy.

That these idiots then let even their half-assed version of Marxism collapse, seemingly leaving capitalism unopposed and stronger than ever, would have made him really cheesed off.

Plus, given what we know about his personal circumstances - how all his life he and his family were pursued by moneylenders and landlords - it's certain that Marx would still have been bad with money. My guess is that despite spending nearly 150 years waiting for capitalism to inevitably collapse, in March this year he would have allowed Steve, his “financial adviser” at the Westphalia and East Prussia Building Society, to persuade him to purchase a newly done-up flat in Central Manchester. “Buy-to-let, Karl, mate,” Steve would have said. “You can't go wrong.”

However, these past few weeks of financial turmoil across the world would have perked old Marx right up: after all, being broke was nothing new to him - and finally, after so many years in the wilderness, his thoughts, his hopes, his prediction that capitalism was unsustainable in the long term, would be considered anew.

From out of the dusty corners and fetid holes where they have been hiding for so many long decades of pain, his true disciples are emerging blinking into the light.

At last they are being asked to write small pieces in newspapers and appear on late-night political TV shows hosted by men with strange hair, and with one voice these true disciples of Karl Marx are saying: “I told you so! I bloody told you so! I've been going on about this stuff for years but you didn't listen, did you? Instead you just stopped inviting me to your dinner parties and didn't answer my increasingly desperate text messages. Now you're sorry, aren't you? But it's too late. Ha ha ha ha ha.”

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