Fantastic piece by Leo Panitch on Marx in Foreign Policy.
Despite the depth of our current predicament, Marx would have no illusions that economic catastrophe would itself bring about change. He knew very well that capitalism, by its nature, breeds and fosters social isolation. Such a system, he wrote, “leaves no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’” Indeed, capitalism leaves societies mired “in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” The resulting social isolation creates passivity in the face of personal crises, from factory layoffs to home foreclosures. So, too, does this isolation impede communities of active, informed citizens from coming together to take up radical alternatives to capitalism.
Marx would ask first and foremost how to overcome this all-consuming social passivity. He thought that unions and workers’ parties developing in his time were a step forward. Thus in Das Kapital he wrote that the “immediate aim” was “the organization of the proletarians into a class” whose “first task” would be “to win the battle for democracy.” Today, he would encourage the formation of new collective identities, associations, and institutions within which people could resist the capitalist status quo and begin deciding how to better fulfill their needs.
“From financialisation of the economy to the socialisation of finance,” Buiter wrote, is “a small step for the lawyers, a huge step for mankind.” Clearly, you don’t need to be a Marxist to have radical aspirations. You do, however, have to be some sort of Marxist to recognize that even at a time like the present, when the capitalist class is on its heels, demoralized and confused, radical change is not likely to start in the form of “a small step for the lawyers” (presumably after getting all the “stakeholders” to sit down together in a room to sign a document or two). Marx would tell you that, without the development of popular forces through radical new movements and parties, the socialization of finance will fall on infertile ground. Notably, during the economic crisis of the 1970s, radical forces inside many of Europe’s social democratic parties put forward similar suggestions, but they were unable to get the leaders of those parties to go along with proposals they derided as old-fashioned.
Attempts to talk seriously about the need to democratize our economies in such radical ways were largely shunted aside by parties of all stripes for the next several decades, and we are still paying the price for marginalizing those ideas. The irrationality built into the basic logic of capitalist markets—and so deftly analyzed by Marx—is once again evident. Trying just to stay afloat, each factory and firm lays off workers and tries to pay less to those kept on. Undermining job security has the effect of undercutting demand throughout the economy. As Marx knew, microrational behavior has the worst macroeconomic outcomes. We now can see where ignoring Marx while trusting in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” gets you.
Yet the work of building new institutions and movements for change must begin at home. Although he made the call “Workers of the world, unite!” Marx still insisted that workers in each country “first of all settle things with their own bourgeoisie.” The measures required to transform existing economic, political, and legal institutions would “of course be different in different countries.” But in every case, Marx would insist that the way to bring about radical change is first to get people to think ambitiously again.
Which presumably has nothing to do with submitting ideas to a website sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce.
How likely is that to happen? Even at a moment when the financial crisis is bleeding dry a vast swath of the world’s people, when collective anxiety shakes every age, religious, and racial group, and when, as always, the deprivations and burdens are falling most heavily on ordinary working people, the prognosis is uncertain. If he were alive today, Marx would not look to pinpoint exactly when or how the current crisis would end. Rather, he would perhaps note that such crises are part and parcel of capitalism’s continued dynamic existence. Reformist politicians who think they can do away with the inherent class inequalities and recurrent crises of capitalist society are the real romantics of our day, themselves clinging to a naive utopian vision of what the world might be. If the current crisis has demonstrated one thing, it is that Marx was the greater realist.