For a while now, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that Marxist analysis is due a revival. There’s something in the air that means suddenly his work is worthy of rehabilitation: whether it’s the credit crunch exposing the casino capitalism indulged in by banks around the world, or the growing awareness that a decade of Labour government has done little to shift the stubborn gap between richest and poorest, I think it’s time that Marx’s focus on power and forms of value return to centre stage.
So I’ve been reading up in anticipation… Marshall Berman’s All that is solid melts into air, and his Adventures in Marxism are both things I probably should have read already, but haven’t. I also picked up Francis Wheen’s delightfully readable tale of how Das Kapital was written (headline: it took a really really long time).
What have I taken from all this? Aside from a much better understanding of Marx’s economic arguments (more on that in a moment) I am really struck by the argument Berman makes about how modern life is somehow ‘flatter’ in its imagination and perspectives: we don’t like the poetry of dialectic, we are less able to hold opposing forces in our heads simultaneously. Wheen compares Marx to the great literary giants of the 19th century in his prose. What does it mean to live in a society where things are so much more one-dimensional, where we refuse to think big in the way Marx did? What do we lose? What do we become blind to?
Of course, Marx’s diagnosis on the state of capitalism is also, in my view, of increasing relevance. His argument that capitalism has within itself its seeds of destruction seems to me to be playing out around us as I type. The question is: what will we do about it? Is it just too fundamental to how the world goes round to dismantle now? How do we respond to the signs that unless we change how we live, we are likely to kill ourselves and the planet?
For Marx, part of the answer lay in critical thought itself. It was through analysis, debate, interrogation that capitalism would be brought down. He had enormous faith in our ability as humans to save ourselves, quoting Gramsci who described the quest for a balance of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.
Critics of Marx, most notably Hannah Arendt (someone else I must read up on), feel that he over-values productivity and individual development. For Arendt, the risk of Marx’s analysis is that there is no ‘commons’, no ties by which people are bound together. Many links here for me to all my stuff around the value of unpaid work, the importance of the household…