26 November 2011

Groucho's cousins

From the Economist's spirited 2002 smackdown of Karl Marx, which I'm rereading in conjunction with the more nuanced The Road From Mont Pelerin: The Making Of The Neoliberal Thought Collective (Harvard Uni Press 2009) edited by Philip Mirowski & Diete Plehwe and Radicalism in French Culture: A Sociology of French Theory in the 1960s (Ashgate 2010) by Niilo Kauppi -
When he wanted to be, Marx was a compelling writer, punching out first-rate epigrams at a reckless pace. The closing sentences of The Communist Manifesto (1848) are rightly celebrated: "The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to gain. Workers of the world, unite." He also had an enviable flair for hysterical invective. At one point in Capital (1867-94), he famously defines the subject of his enquiry as "dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." That is not only unforgettable but actually very apt, if you believe Marx's theory of value. He could express himself brilliantly when he chose to.

Yet he was also capable of stupefying dullness and impenetrable complexity. Try the opening pages of Capital (it picks up later). In his scientific work, as he called it, he minted jargon at a befuddling rate, underlining terms to emphasise their opacity, then changing their meaning at will. Adding to the fog, what Marx believed in 1844 was probably not what he believed in 1874: the only constant was his conviction that what he said at any time was both the absolute truth and fully consistent with what he had said before. And most of the published Marx, including the “Manifesto” and volumes two and three of Capital, was edited, co-written or ghost written by Friedrich Engels. For many years, therefore, separating Marx from Engels in what the world understands as “Marx” was an academic industry in itself. ...

Marx was a scholar, but he was also a fanatic and a revolutionary. His incapacity for compromise (with comrades, let alone opponents) was pathological. And in the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Manifesto, his last published writing, Marx hoped that a revolution in Russia might become “the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other”; if so, Russia, despite its pre-capitalist characteristics, “may serve as the starting-point for a communist development.” Lenin was surely right to believe that he, not those soft-headed bourgeois accommodationists, was true to the master's thought.

... the fact remains that on everything that mattered most to Marx himself, he was wrong. The real power he claimed for his system was predictive, and his main predictions are hopeless failures. Concerning the outlook for capitalism, one can always argue that he was wrong only in his timing: in the end, when capitalism has run its course, he will be proved right. Put in such a form, this argument, like many other apologies for Marx, has the advantage of being impossible to falsify. But that does not make it plausible. The trouble is, it leaves out class. This is a wise omission, because class is an idea which has become blurred to the point of meaninglessness. Class antagonism, though, is indispensable to the Marxist world-view. Without it, even if capitalism succumbs to stagnation or decline, the mechanism for its overthrow is missing.

Class war is the sine qua non of Marx. But the class war, if it ever existed, is over. In western democracies today, who chooses who rules, and for how long? Who tells governments how companies will be regulated? Who in the end owns the companies? Workers for hire—the proletariat. And this is because of, not despite, the things Marx most deplored: private property, liberal political rights and the market. Where it mattered most, Marx could not have been more wrong. ...

The core idea that economic structure determines everything has been especially pernicious. According to this view, the right to private property, for instance, exists only because it serves bourgeois relations of production. The same can be said for every other right or civil liberty one finds in society. The idea that such rights have a deeper moral underpinning is an illusion. Morality itself is an illusion, just another weapon of the ruling class. (As Gyorgy Lukacs put it, 'Communist ethics makes it the highest duty to act wickedly ... This is the greatest sacrifice revolution asks from us.') Human agency is null: we are mere dupes of “the system”, until we repudiate it outright.

What goes for ethics also goes for history, literature, the rest of the humanities and the social sciences. The “late Marxist” sees them all, as traditionally understood, not as subjects for disinterested intellectual inquiry but as forms of social control. Never ask what a painter, playwright, architect or philosopher thought he was doing. You know before you even glance at his work what he was really doing: shoring up the ruling class. This mindset has made deep inroads — most notoriously in literary studies, but not just there — in university departments and on campuses across Western Europe and especially in the United States. The result is a withering away not of the state but of opportunities for intelligent conversation and of confidence that young people might receive a decent liberal education. ...

It is striking that today's militant critics of globalisation, whether declared Marxists or otherwise, ... present no worked-out alternative to the present economic order. Instead, they invoke a Utopia free of environmental stress, social injustice and branded sportswear, harking back to a pre-industrial golden age that did not actually exist. Never is this alternative future given clear shape or offered up for examination.

Anti-globalists have inherited more from Marx besides this. Note the self-righteous anger, the violent rhetoric, the willing resort to actual violence (in response to the “violence” of the other side), the demonisation of big business, the division of the world into exploiters and victims, the contempt for piecemeal reform, the zeal for activism, the impatience with democracy, the disdain for liberal “rights” and “freedoms”, the suspicion of compromise, the presumption of hypocrisy (or childish naivety) in arguments that defend the market order.

Anti-globalism has been aptly described as a secular religion. So is Marxism: a creed complete with prophet, sacred texts and the promise of a heaven shrouded in mystery. Marx was not a scientist, as he claimed. He founded a faith. The economic and political systems he inspired are dead or dying. But his religion is a broad church, and lives on.