Marx has been declared dead so many times, and yet he keeps coming back again and again, the reason being that his ideas, his theories, are the only ones that can explain the present crisis of capitalism. Here a Nigerian Marxist gives his views on the relevance of Marx’s ideas today.
“Don’t you wonder,” asks Marx in Howard Zinn’s play, Marx In Soho, “why is it necessary to declare me dead again and again?” Twenty years ago, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the capitalists and their spokespersons felt triumphant. Not content with proclaiming the end of Communism, the end of Socialism, they also proclaimed the end of history. “In the argument, between capitalism and Marxism,” wrote Reuben Abati, “it is the free market intellectuals that have won the battle.”
And now in their search for a way out of the economic wreckage of their system, the capitalists and their ‘intellectual’ hangers-on are ‘resurrecting’ Marx. “…Hovering out there in the fog, unavoidably, is the towering spectre of Karl Marx, the grandfather of political economists, whose damning critique of capitalism’s inadequacies played an outsized role in world history for a century after his death in 1883,” writes TIME’s Peter Gumbel. It is this article, Rethinking Marx, that furnishes the platform for an ongoing debate.
As a rule, people do not like change, particularly sharp and sudden change that upsets their preconceived notions and beliefs. This persistence of belief is quite evident in the article A Crisis Marx Could Not Have Foretold by Ijeoma Nwogwugwu. After a long period of relative prosperity in which “unbridled capitalism and market forces, deregulation, liberalization and privatization” gave the writer “access to relatively fast and reliable internet service” where she was able to search for previous TIME magazine cover stories on Karl Marx, it is no wonder that the natural reaction to the current economic crisis is one of shock and disbelief.
The priority seems a faster internet service! And the significant percentage of the world’s children who live in poverty? The many who die every year before their first birthday? The overworked mothers in rotten tenements who have never given birth in a proper hospital…? So these are the wonders of the market? The writer probably surfed the net with her coltan-filled laptop. Coltan, by the way, is a metal that conducts heat unusually brilliantly. It is contained in cell phones and laptops and an estimated 80 percent of the world’s supplies lies beneath the Democratic Republic of Congo. The boom in mobiles and laptops have been at the cost of a human holocaust – the war in the Congo. But let us pass on.
Did Marx foretell, or did he not the recurrent crisis of capitalism? This is what Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past, the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that, by their periodical return, put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production.
“Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed. And why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand, by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.”
And yet Ijeoma writes that “most critically, Marx in all his writings failed to forecast the booms and busts cycles that all economies, the global one inclusive, go through.” It means that the business and economy writer of one of the major bourgeois newspapers, writes about Marxism without reading a single work of Karl Marx! This is what Kayode Komolafe wrote in Tale Of A Crisis Foretold: “It is not surprising that those worshippers in the temple of neo-liberalism are confounded by this crisis. The truth is that their world outlook lacks the necessary philosophical rigour to explain what has befallen the global economy.”
What did bourgeois economists foretell? They foresaw nothing – and foretold nothing. For the past 30 years they have not made a single correct prediction. And now in the face of a crisis, that they said belonged to the past, they make all kinds of ridiculous contortions. According to the New Economic Paradigm there were supposed to be no more slumps. Gordon Brown pronounced the end of boom and bust. Well... the boom has certainly come to an end. What is here now is the bust.
Marx explained a long time ago that the real reason for the crisis of capitalism is that the condition of capitalist society is too narrow to comprise the wealth created by it. The capitalists, Marx explained, can get around the crisis but only at the expense of preparing deeper crises in the future. And this is what has occurred. One of the ways capitalism had attempted to overcome its crisis was by the intensification of the ruthless drive for markets, witnessed in the collapse of the former Soviet Union when billions of people in Russia, China and the Eastern Europe joined the capitalist economy. “Industrial enterprises, both foreign and local, multiplied, tapping low-wage labor to become internationally competitive exporters that shipped toys, textiles and TV sets to the U.S. and Europe,” writes another TIME writer in the same edition and cited in the contentious article, “...In 1981, nearly 80% of East Asians lived on less than $1.25 a day, according to a recent World Bank study; by 2005, only 18% did. Compare that to sub-Saharan Africa, where countries didn’t connect to the world economy as successfully as Asia. There, the poverty remained stuck at around 50% from 1981 to 2005.”
Writes Ijeoma, “but the spectacular growth experienced by Asian countries for over a decade and more recently sub-Saharan African economies, has not trickled down to the generality of the population. Much of the growth has been export driven, and prosperity was limited mostly to urban dwellers and migrant workers... Added to that, the drastic fall in consumer spending in the west which imports the bulk of the goods made by poorer nations...” it is difficult to say which carries more weight, the writer’s sincere hatred of Marxism or refusal to sincerely appraise the systemic failure of capitalism.
Marxists have long explained that credit is a means, only a means, of artificially extending the markets for a short period at the risk of undermining it on a long term basis. The same weapons with which the capitalists lifted “hundreds of millions of people out of poverty” are now turned against capitalism itself. Private ownership and the nation state, which were partially overcome by globalisation, have failed. Globalisation, therefore, expresses itself as a global crisis of capitalism.
Reinhard Marx (who not only ‘borrowed’ Marx’s name but also the title Das Kapital to cash in on the book’s bestseller status), a former Roman Catholic Bishop, echoes the fears of the capitalists and their ‘intellectual’ hangers-on from Washington to Vladivostok. “…Could it be that capitalism is just an episode of history that will end at some point because the system will collapse as a result of its internal contradictions… Were we too quick to dismiss you and your economic theories?” writes the Archbishop to the great thinker.
What is to be done? “Ask the experts…,” says Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, “And the most honest reply is ‘I don’t know’.” The problem for the strategists of capital in the U.S. and worldwide is that they do not have the slightest idea what to do. The cure-all they had advocated – deregulation, privatization, liberalization, like “gbogbonise,” the wonderful cure-all medicine sold by itinerant medicine men on market days in my village ‑ has cured nothing. On the contrary, the results have been untold misery, rising unemployment, poverty and intense suffering for the mass of humanity. “The modern worker,” wrote Marx, “… instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper…”
Mass unemployment, ruthless cuts in wages, the abolition of social reforms and a general worsening of living standards have become the order of the day and not the sugary ideal of full Keynesianism where social and economic policies were supposed to march hand in hand with a strong social fabric, with solid healthcare and education systems, providing a powerful underpinning to a competitive economy, which would in turn support modern infrastructure, profitable banks, and a steady rise in living standards. Keynes advocated massive public spending. What seem likely, however, given the prevailing economic situation, are drastic cuts in public spending and increased taxation.
For the past 30 years the capitalists made a bonfire of all financial regulations. There must be no regulation, government has got no business doing business. The philosopher’s stone of these individuals was deregulation, markets must be deregulated. Now they all call for regulation. We must regulate, regulate, regulate… The words on their lips are that “laissez faire is dead.”
What does this mean? In one of its editorials in recent months The Economist wrote, “…In the short term, defending capitalism means, paradoxically, state intervention.” This comes from a magazine that had conducted in the past 20 years a noisy campaign against state intervention. To console themselves, the editorial concludes, “…And eventually capitalism corrects itself.”
Here is what TIME wrote in September 2008, “One weekend, the Federal Government swallows two gigantic mortgage companies and dumps more than $5 trillion – yes, with a t – of the firm’s debt onto taxpayers… While we’re trying to get our heads around what amounts to the biggest debt transfer since money was created, Lehman Brothers goes broke, and Merrill Lynch feels compelled to shack up with Bank of America to avoid a similar fate. Then, having sworn off bailouts by letting Lehman fail and wiping out its shareholders, the Treasury and the Fed reverse course for an $85 billion rescue of creditors and policyholders of American International Group (AIG), a $1 trillion insurance company. Other once impregnable institutions may disappear or be gobbled up.” But it went beyond financial institutions. A country, Iceland, went bankrupt.
What does the intervention of the state indicate? It indicates fear. Fear of the social and political consequences. It was this that compelled them to take such an extraordinary measure. Drastic situations demand drastic measures. It is necessary, therefore to understand that the banking crisis is not the real crisis. It is only a prelude. The real crisis is a crisis of the real economy. Everywhere, the banks can only survive courtesy of the state. Nationalisation of the banks was, therefore, a means of saving capitalism.
We will end this piece the way we began: the time lag in the consciousness of the masses. At decisive moments, however, consciousness catches up with events and men and women begin to question the old, discredited and confused ideas, the kind of society they live in, its morality and justice. Such a period has been reached.
In the past period, following the collapse of Stalinism, and the fireworks display of the wonders of the “free market”, “true believers of Marx” were forced to swim against a powerful current. Not anymore. This backward-flowing current is surging forward and we are swimming with it, no longer against it. Onwards, ever onwards. Swimming... Our time has come. A spectre haunts the world – the spectre of Communism...