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Getting it right about Marx

Mounting street-level opposition to the capitalist G20 governments London gathering prompted the Evening Standard to observe this week that the impact of the combined financial and economic crises is making Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalist society attractive to a rapidly increasing number of people looking for explanations and solutions.

With a pretence of balance the ES wheeled out two writers to present the case for and against Marx. Francis Wheen, author of Marx's Das Kapital, which tells the story of the 20-year struggle to complete his seminal analysis of capitalism, is in the red corner. Wheen, to his credit, draws attention to Marx’s profound analysis of the underlying capitalist profit-seeking alternating but worsening cycle of growth, overproduction, bust, and destruction and its mutually-dependent relation with credit and debt.

But to use Wheen as Marx’s defender is a deliberate trap for the unwary. As we have shown elsewhere, Wheen’s real mission is to undermine Marx by reducing him from a revolutionary to an acute observer, saying: “Marx's vivid portrayal of the forces that govern our lives will never lose its resonance, or its power to bring the world into focus.” Calling on financier George Soros, for help, Wheen shows that Marx was right about the inherent instability of the system but can’t resist adding: “The fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat have not come to pass.”

In the blue corner, defending capital, is Emma Duncan deputy editor of The Economist claiming that “the central idea in Marxism – that the interests of the workers and owners were separate and opposed – is no longer true”. Her facile argument is that anyone who has a pension or life insurance “owns part of the means of production because the pension funds and life insurance companies are the biggest owners of shares in companies in the world”. Astoundingly she concludes that as a result, the class war “which Marx thought would bring the system down is over”.

Despite Duncan, the two social, class forces set in opposition to each other by capitalist society continue to express themselves. Peter Brabeck, the head of Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, and vice-chairman of Credit Suisse, said yesterday that the company is confident that it can weather the general decline in global consumption. In the developed, rich, overstuffed countries with a mounting proportion of obese adults and children, quantitative limits of “caloric input” have been reached and are giving way to quality.

But it’s OK for Nestlé. They are so big that they cover every aspect of the business, and will make their profits from whatever food people buy. And, even better, based on current projections, world population is predicted to rise from 6.5 billion to 9 billion – more mouths to fill with profitable (if sometimes dangerous) food products! Nestle owns the Chinese company that was lacing children’s milk with poison last year.

The global trade union body ITUC published its own broad-based assessment of the food crisis on the same day. It shows how investors fled from the credit crisis last year, transferring their funds to speculate on commodity futures. This has resulted in higher prices, putting even subsistence foods beyond the reach of many. As a result 150 million more people have been driven to and beyond the brink of starvation. Global estimates put the number facing acute hunger at over 1 billion.

So much for the alleged identity of interests of workers and capitalists that Duncan muses about. As to Wheen’s passive, one-sided, non-revolutionary view of Marx, we should simply repeat what Marx himself wrote in his Theses On Feuerbach in 1845: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
1 April 2009

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