Was Karl Marx right?

Gotta listen to this if you can.

I happened to catch A Point of View last Sunday morning on BBC radio 4. (Basically a 10 minute reflection by a guest, in the schedule slot where Alistair Cooke used to give his beautifully crafted Letters from America).

John Gray, who is a philosopher and author, makes his case of how Karl Marx was right, but for the wrong reasons. Gray argues how it has been capitalism (not communism) that has destroyed the bourgeoisie life.

By bourgeoisie he means the middle class dream of a job for life, accumulation of capital, land and house ownership, security, retirement with pension – the dream of a life under control, filled with assumptions of orderly progress.

Marx despised this vision built on capitalist foundations that he hoped one day would collapse to be replaced by a communist revolution that would usher in a more equitable and humane society.

If Marx was wrong about communism, Gray argues, he was far more profoundly right about capitalism than most economists of his day and ours. For he saw how capitalism was inherently unstable and would eventually destroy its own core constituency – the middle class.

John Gray

Gray makes the case that this is exactly what has been happening before our eyes. As Marx said, in capitalism “everything that is solid melts into air.”

Capitalism is the most revolutionary economic system to evolve in human history. The unleashed market knows no bounds. All is endless and ever faster change. Companies and entire industries come and go at a seemingly ever faster rate.

Endless innovation, increasing job insecurity, ruthless outsourcing, expendable labour – all these are hallmarks of the late capitalist age in which we live. [I blogged a while back about the effects of this sort of unstable capitalist society on the world of work here].

Now of course capitalism has been endlessly productive and has generated great wealth and increased prosperity. [for example see here]. Its defenders will say it has made the lives of millions far better than could ever been imaginable before the 20th Century. The bourgeoisie life was available to all. Everyone could be middle class.

But what Gray says is striking – capitalism is a process of ‘creative destruction’ and the very process of wealth generation is reaching a point that capitalism is destroying the very people it is founded upon – the middle class.

How?   Because that vision of safety, planning, savings, progression, and retirement has been blown out of the water. Over the last 30 years in the USA, Europe and elsewhere the bourgeoisie lifestyle has been eroded and fragmented. Job security has all but disappeared (unless you happen to be an Irish civil servant :)) ; trades and professions have all but vanished;  life long careers belong to a previous generation (like my father’s); the bourgeoisie dream of security though house ownership has been exploded with booms and busts – for most in Ireland today it is more like a millstone of debt abound one’s neck than a secure asset.

So ironically, says Gray, more and more, life within capitalism is akin to Marx’s insecure proletariat – living day to day, without savings and without any firm foundation for the future. Life as a successive number of predictable stages is a fading dream. Work itself is transitory and difficult to hold onto in a globalised hyper-competitive market.

For most people in early 21st capitalism, life is uncertain and out of their control. The Credit Crunch was due to capitalism’s inequality and instability where the rich and powerful few made billions, took insane risks with other people’s money and broke the system. Its effects on the younger generations will continue to work out in decades ahead.

If work is an ever changing context requiring adaptability and retraining, capitalism’s bankrupt systems of government is forcing students to take on increasing amounts of third level debt that will hinder their flexibility and options.

“The prospect facing most people today is a lifetime of insecurity.’

And then he says something very interesting. He argues that capitalism has not only eroded its own foundation but it has stripped away the values that held the bourgeoisie life together. Values of  thrift, perseverance, loyalty, saving don’t ‘fit’ within a fast changing, mobile and flexible market that is in continual transformation.

So Gray proposes that Marx was right – everything that appeared solid has melted into air. Sudden ruin, insecurity and instability are here to stay. The most recent capitalist collapse holds the prospect of currency breakup, governments falling, inflating away vast un-payable debts – with all the harsh implications those events have on already struggling citizens. And even the mega-rich can lose their fortunes from one day to the next.

So this perpetual revolution of capitalism is the world in which we live. He doesn’t predict the end of capitalism – it will continue to reinvent itself. But he does conclude that capitalism itself has killed the bourgeoisie dream it inspired in the first place.

Now, if accurate, where that leaves the people of God as pilgrims through this transitory world is a whole other blog post or ten … maybe a bit more  like the vast majority of their fellow Christians around the rest of the globe … ?

And what are some pastoral implications for churches, full of people with increasingly insecure and unpredictable futures?

Comments, as ever, welcome.


One thought on “Was Karl Marx right?

  1. The life, people belonging in the middle class, will continue to shape the way they deal with the future. In this state, resources seem limited even for the very resourceful and brilliant people. Things appear to be flexed and used up to their utmost benefit. I agree with what seemed to vanish as people aspire to acquire possession and by their climbing the ladder of one’s career. Along with this though, are the values added on as how they were influenced by how the people behave in the economy. We can’t predict yet how things may flow in the next period. But it is wise to think of what we have as of now, what to do with them and consider risks in every action we take.

    This is a good article and a good argument. Now, I really must take my economy observation up to a more serious notch. Thanks.

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