When I was first studying economics, Marx looked to me like an idiot. In postwar America and in much of the West, the proletariat was making steady gains. Far from turning revolutionary, workers were joining unions and supporting mainstream center-left political parties.
Far from containing the seeds of its own destruction, capitalism in Europe and America had at last been harnessed in the broad public interest. The welfare state was spreading the good life. The bourgeoisie was doing well, but it was mostly well-behaved. Nobody was being “immiserated.”
Meanwhile, nations that invoked Marx’s name were both economic failures and political hellholes. Far from Marx’s benign “dictatorship of the proletariat,” communist countries were ordinary despotisms, and corrupt as hell to boot.
Well, what a difference a generation makes. Today, Marxian concepts that once sounded far-fetched or silly are pretty good descriptions of reality.
This weekend marked the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, who was born in the German city of Trier on May 5, 1818. With more and more workers pushed aside by global capitalism and more and more of the economic gains going to the top, it’s a good time to inquire if perhaps Marx might have been right after all.
There is indeed a global reserve army of the unemployed, and it drags down wages generally. More and more working people are being dumped into a “lumpenproletariat” made up of would-be workers without regular jobs.
When I was in graduate school, I snickered at Marxists who described the state as “the executive committee of the ruling class.” Hadn’t they read their Galbraith? Didn’t they appreciate that the democratic state, along with the labor movement, were instruments of what Galbraith termed countervailing power? The state was not captive to the ruling class. It was a core institution that offset the influence of economic royalists.
Well, today the state has been pretty well captured by the Koch brothers and company. Goldman Sachs has provided five of the last six secretaries of the Treasury, under Democrats and Republicans alike. That sounds a lot more like “executive committee” than “countervailing power.”
The postwar boom, rather than being a permanent refutation of Marx, was more like a fortunate historical blip — when the stars were aligned to regulate capitalism in a broad public interest. But one bad decade, the 1970s, was sufficient to restore both capitalists and the ideology of raw, free-market capitalism to their usual power — despite the verdict of history that raw capitalism keeps generating needless economic catastrophe.
The greatest of the 20th century economists, John Maynard Keynes, demonstrated that this did not have to be so. With the right policy interventions, a basically capitalist economy could indeed be harnessed to serve the broad working public.
The postwar boom seemed to prove Keynes right. But one of Keynes’ lesser-known colleagues, the Polish-born economist Michal Kalecki, who located himself somewhere between Keynes and Marx, offered the following rebuttal: Even if it were possible as a matter of economics to harness a basically capitalist system to serve the broad mass of people, as a matter of politics the capitalist class would never let policymakers do it.
When Kalecki made that case in the mid-1940s, it looked as if Keynes had the better argument. But after four decades of the destruction of managed capitalism by resurgent business and banking elites, Kalecki looks prophetic.
This is not to say that Marx was entirely correct, however. He got one big thing wrong. Touchingly, he imagined that as capitalism became more and more destructive, the workers of the world would unite.
Frustrated workers, whether in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Britain, France or the U.S., are not joining hands with their brothers and sisters in other lands. They are turning to neo-fascists at home. Poor Marx left out the appeal of ultranationalism.
Well, happy birthday, Karl. We can learn some things from you about capitalism’s multiple pathologies. But when it comes to devising a politics that will harness the market once again, so that ordinary people can benefit from all of the economy’s bounty and neo-fascists can return to their caves, we are on our own.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?