Reporting back from the revolution…as promised in an earlier blog:
Marx wrote over 100 years ago about capitalism’s alienated workforce, using terms such as ‘the commodification of labour’, ‘the labour theory of power’, ‘use value’, ‘historical materialism’, and ‘spontaneous class consciousness’. But how much do these terms still mean today?
At Marx in a day, the question that arose over and over again was: are Marx’s concepts relevant in the here and now?
Another that springs to mind is: how has society changed since he was writing – could he ever have predicted just how global and powerful a force capitalism would become?
These are big, difficult questions that are immensely wide in scope, so I’ll attempt to just touch on them briefly in a fairly palatable way – by putting together three ways in which Marx is still relevant today, based on some of the fascinating material that came out of Marx in a day:
1. According to Chris Nineham, who was the lecturer on Marx’s philosophy:
“There are more working class people in South Korea now than there were in the entire world when Marx was writing.”
This is simply an astounding fact. It puts paid to the claims of those who would like to argue that society has become more fair and progressive over the past 100 years – quite the opposite is true.
The gulf between the most rich and the poorest working-class people is widening more and more in the UK and, indeed, worldwide.
As a result, Marx’s wholehearted calls for ‘active action’ (i.e. activism) resonate now more than ever. He believed we can only understand the world if we’re part of the process to change it, and movements such as the global Occupy movement, alongside smaller scale protests such those against the housing crisis in London (in particular, the E15 mothers who have recently captured the nation’s attention) are forms of active action against the destructive impact of capitalism. Would Marx would have approved? Absolutely.
2. As Katherine Connelly, who lectured on Marx’s theory of revolution, made clear:
“The promotion of capitalism as an internal, endless system is a myth propagated now and in Marx’s time.”
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx said of this myth that it is a “selfish misconception…you [meaning the ruling elites] share with every ruling class before you.”
He very much believed that capitalism was no exception to any other prevailing ideology in any other time – capitalism was born, and what is born can just as easily die.
It’s certainly true that capitalism is presented as somehow being the inevitable and only way of structuring society, particularly in the West, and other potential methods of organising society are either entirely absent from the British media or presented as something to ridicule.
This is no accident – just as in Marx’s time, the information we are presented with is fed to us by ruling elites, and it’s not exactly in their best interest for other ideas of how to construct society to present themselves to us as attractive options. Which brings me on to the third way in which he is still relevant today:
3. Chris Nineham argued that:
“The mainstream don’t like big ideas such as Marxism. Such ideas are immediately dismissed as ‘grand narratives’.”
‘Grand narratives’ is a loaded term coined by the postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard and is, in effect, a justification for maintaining the status quo. The marxists.org website provides a good summation of precisely what is meant by ‘grand narrative’, and why it’s such a problematic term:
“The concept of grand narrative…sees some kind of interconnection between events…is able in some way to make sense of history…concepts like “class struggle”, socialism and capitalism, productive forces and so on.
“According to Lyotard, in the postmodern period, people no longer believe in grand narratives…And what is this theory about “grand narrative” really about? It is another version of the end of history, another way of saying that bourgeois society is as good as it gets.”
So, the mainstream wants us to accept immediacy as the norm, and to reject wholesale explanations of why society is as it is. This is simply because if anyone were to look at capitalist society in its entirety, they’d see that it’s not just an unjustifiable system, but also one that’s untenable.
It’s not difficult to imagine why the elites who benefit from the system would want to keep this from us – if we (‘the masses’, as it were) were to lose our belief in the system of capitalism, they’d stand to lose all they have.
If nothing else, there’s just one thing I’d like you to take away with you about Marx. It’s something Engels said at Marx’s funeral: “He was, above all else, a revolutionary.” As obvious a statement as this may seem, it’s crucial to emphasise that Marx was 100% committed to the idea of revolution and he fought for social justice all his life.
He is not only as relevant as he ever was – he’s also as much to be admired as ever.