All of a sudden Karl Marx and Marxist thought are being talked about in the most unlikely places… like the Financial Times. Here is a sample that I identify a lot with from Gideon Rachman, the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator. Like Rachman, when I was a student I couldn’t make any sense of Marx either.
“The old is dying and the new cannot be born: in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear.” That statement from the Prison Notebooks of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci was a favourite of student Marxists when I was at university in the 1980s. Back then it struck me as portentous nonsense. But Gramsci’s observation does resonate now – in an age of ideological confusion. Gideon Rachman – Financial Times
It is a little like what Mark Twain said,
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Commenting on Gideon’s Gramsci quote, I would counter-quote with what Marx himself said on the transition from one historical period to another, something which so many of us feel is happening right now
No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.
Quite naturally, there are many people who believe that Marx’s thinking is valueless because the Soviet Union collapsed in ruin and that Marx was to blame for it. They forget that Marx didn’t create the Soviet Union, Lenin did that, using Marx as an intellectual tool. Where Marx said, not before “material conditions have matured in the womb of the old society itself”, Lenin believed that the “new social order” could be delivered by Caesarian section. He was wrong and instead of the the moneyless, classless society that Marx vaguely predicted would succeed our system, Lenin gave birth to a sort of state capitalism, whose definition might have been the old soviet joke, “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”.
Having said that, it is doubtful if the czarist regime could have ever industrialized Russia, defeated Nazi Germany and put the first man in space as Lenin’s creation did. The irony of course being that the USSR’s collapse made a perfect example of what Marx had said, that “new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.” Lenin’s C-section revolution produced a rigid, dogmatic system that couldn’t adapt to the post-industrial, information society trends. They were the ones that were “old”. In the end they were brought down because their brand of “capitalism” was more fragile than ours, which as we are discovering now, doesn’t mean that our system isn’t also fragile.
In a sense we may be about to die of success, we may be spinning off the road, like a car in an ice storm. We like to think that our system is about “freedom” and democracy, but it is probably about consumption. We produce more and more stuff with fewer and fewer people pay is stagnant for the mass of consumers, who can only stay in the game with credit, which has dried up. But it was grand while it lasted. That is what the soviet block never managed to do.
Here is a classic joke from the now defunct German Democratic Republic.
A man is walking home from work, when he sees a long line forming in front of a government store, he asks the people what they are in line for and they tell him “lemons”… Frantically he runs home, arriving much earlier than normal, and finds his wife in bed with his next door neighbor, confronting them furiously he shouts:
What are you doing here, don’t you know that today they are selling lemons?
What brought the GDR down and the rest of Really Existing Socialism, including the USSR along with it, was not really people’s chaffing under the repression of totalitarianism, but rather our system’s miraculous ability to produce and distribute an infinite variety of affordable consumer goods, which their godless, planned economy couldn’t. Free health care, social equality, guaranteed employment, good schools (Angela Merkel graduated from the University of Leipzig) and guaranteed housing couldn’t compete with our cornucopia.
The essence of our system is a quite recent — and never before in history achieved — endless variety of things, many of them amazingly cheap, to choose from. Think about it, you wander into a shopping mall looking to buy some deodorant and you’ll be forced to choose between dozens of different brands at many different prices until you find exactly the one that suits your pocketbook or your “unique lifestyle” and image. You can eat your favorite fruit at any time of the year, flown in from the other side of the planet. This is freedom!
However it appears that we produce more and more with fewer and fewer people and the majority’s earning power has stagnated to the point where the newly impoverished would-be consumers can only pay to play by going deeply into debt. And now credit has dried up.
So Marx’s idea expressed in “Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy“, was that when our system reached its full potential, its inner conflicts would cause it to collapse.
What would that “full potential” look like?
Maybe it would be interesting to look into the opinion of venture capitalists, after all they risk their money on predicting that future. I recently stumbled on an interesting one, Steve Jurvetson, who is a partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson a firm with affiliate offices in more than 30 cities around the world and over $7 billion in capital commitments. The video I am featuring below comes from the Stanford Center for Professional Devopment, and in it Jurvetson speaks about the future. He is a very effective communicator and allthough a lot of what he says sounds like pure science fiction, it most certainly isn’t.
Jurvetson gave the lecture in the video below at Stanford back in 2009 and although it is an hour long, I think that anyone interested in where the world is heading should watch it carefully. Even stop the video and go back and watch and listen to some parts more than once.