Ever so tentatively and haltingly, in the context of the recent near total meltdown of the global economy, the two most feared words in the western world have begun to enjoy what could become a revival.
The words are not “liberal” or even “socialist,” but something far more scary: “Karl Marx.”
Many born since 1980, or especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1988, may have hardly heard of him. Those who have may only recall a photo of a frumpy-looking man with a bushy beard, a “mug shot” that could easily be confused with that of Johannes Brahms, for example, and of the well-worn phrase, “failed theory.”
Otherwise, he’s remembered as the spiritual father of the western free markets’ greatest threats, the Soviet Union, Communist China and other statist regimes from North Korea to Cuba, and even Venezuela. As far removed as he, personally, was from the violent convulsions of the early 20th century that gave rise, in the wake of the Great War that made mincemeat of modern civilization, he and his “Communist Manifesto” of 1848 were on the flags waved in the midst of those revolutionary times.
Few bother these days to take a look at what Marx actually talked about in such dry and boring detail in his “Das Kapital,” or other more philosophical writings, about the economic and social alienation arising from the internal contradictions in the capitalist mode of production.
But a closer look reveals a poignant and almost uncanny critique of what’s unfolded in the last 30 years that triggered the 2008 economic meltdown, and the probable slow slide of the U.S. economy into a third Great Depression.
Creighton University Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Dr. Amy Wendling authored the book, “Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation, “in May 2009, based on a study of Marx’s unpublished notebooks from July 1852, and in the Summer 2010 edition of Creighton’s online magazine, she wrote “A Second Glance: The Karl Marx You Never Knew.”
There she cites the beginning evocations of Marx’s name in the midst of the current crisis coming from, of all people, Pope Benedict, in a 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi. While critical of Marxism, generally, it “praises Marx’s intentions and broad historical knowledge.”
In 2008, the German Archbishop Reinhard Marx (no relation) “nods to Karl Marx’s crisis theory, his critique of capitalism’s internal contradictions, as his diagnosis of widespread social alienation.” That, in turn, was cited in a recent article in Time Australia by Peter Gumbel.
Last fall, an article by Richard Owen in The Times Online cites philosopher George Sans’ renewed interest in Marx, as Sans published an article in a Jesuit journal and later in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Sans hailed Marx’s ideas about the widespread social alienation present in capitalist society.
Dr. Wendling explores Marx in three new ways in her book: Marx as Theorist of Economic Crisis, Marx as Technological Historian (partly due to his profession as a newspaper reporter), and Marx as Philosopher.
In my own view, Marx made two seminal points from which the rest of his theories and observations are derived.
First: Marx identified a critical distinction between capital that is invested in the generation of real, tangible wealth and capital invested in paper values and gratuitous discretionary consumerism. This is something that has always been violently opposed by the free market capitalist proponents who brought us the meltdown of 2008. Marx argued that with advances in technology, he could “imagine a world without food scarcity,” as Dr. Wendling notes.
Second: Marx launched a scathing critique of the philosophies of egoism, hedonism, structuralism, nihilism, anarchism and other variants of radical selfishness and individualism, when he took on a Max Stirner, a modern precursor of that regrettable socio-political trend, in in his “German Ideology.”
In the U.S., Marx’s influence strengthened opposition to child labor, and the fight of labor unions for livable wages and working conditions. Countering this, “free market” capitalists promoted radical individualist philosophies ranging from Ayn Rand to William Burroughs, tracing their legacies to Stirner and Nietzsche, as cheerleaders for much of the misery of the recent era that’s led to the recent collapse.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org