Marx at 200: As relevant as ever

Today (5 May 2018) is the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth in the German city of Trier, and all over the world people are celebrating his contribution to our self-understanding through the political, economic and social theories he (sometimes with his friend and colleague, Friedrich Engels) penned during his lifetime. The anniversary celebrations are not without their detractors and opponents, of course. Marx, together with Engels, was not a unilaterally praised and lionised thinker during his lifetime or since his death in 1883, to say the least. Yet, he remains as relevant, and as controversial as ever today, judging by any number of reports on the commemoration of his birthday.

A particularly irksome thorn in the sides of his opponents must surely be the 5.5 metre tall statue of Marx that the People’s Republic of China has presented as a gift to the City of Trier in recognition of Marx’s continuing relevance for the Chinese, which will be unveiled today (Saturday the 5th of May). As may be expected, therefore, the celebrations will be accompanied by protests on the part of Marx’s detractors.

But how relevant is Marx today, when the triumph of capitalism seems virtually complete? In West Germany, during the Cold War years — when Berlin was divided by its notorious ‘wall’ — Marx was persona non grata, of course, but that appears to have changed somewhat since the two Germanys have become re-unified. Recently capitalist excesses have led to widespread dissatisfaction, concomitantly sparking a revival of interest in Marx’s theories, particularly insofar as they chime with growing inequality and working class discontent worldwide. In plain language, what Marx and Engels thought of as endless class struggle under capitalism has become conspicuous today, albeit with new names, such as ‘the 99% versus the 1%’. Compare the following passage from The Communist Manifesto that Marx co-wrote and published with Engels in 1848, and ask yourself if anything has fundamentally changed:

“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.

“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

“In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.

“The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms: Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes, directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” (p.7 of the Project Gutenberg Etext, freely available online.)

Keep in mind this was written around the middle of the 19th century — more than 150 years ago — and as far as I can see, the fundamental opposition between the bourgeoisie (commercial classes) and the proletariat (the working classes) has not changed, except in one important respect: the former has shrunk to a group that now constitutes what Manuel Castells, not mincing his words, calls the ‘ruling elites of the world’, or what the Occupy Wall Street movement referred to as the ‘1%’, while the latter (the workers, or the ‘99%’) has expanded significantly in numbers, with an important qualification, which involves the emergence of a third, distinctly identifiable group.

This group existed in Marx’s time, but could be counted among the proletariat because it was always ready to sell its labour when opportunities arose (as is the case today, to some degree). It comprises what one might call the indigents — people who suffer from extreme poverty — who just keep growing in number as economic hardship bites ever deeper. From what I can gather many of them are no longer even interested in finding work, for various complicated reasons, such as their lack of qualifications to survive in an increasingly globalised, automated (AI and machine-oriented) society, or their hopelessness and desperation in the face of the disappearance of socio-economic aid programmes under neoliberal capitalism – which is characterised by its lack of sympathy for the downtrodden and the unfortunate, which are simply cast aside as ‘losers’.

In fact, capitalism today, while still displaying most of the features that Marx (and Engels) discerned in the 19th century, can be typified as a society comprising the two classes of (economic) ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ — conspicuously resonating with Donald Trump’s vocabulary. Some of the unfortunate people who count among the so-called ‘losers’ (but which are really a product of neoliberal capitalist society) are so far down and out that even an abundance of work-opportunity would probably not help them.

Among other things I am referring to what is described as “a national emergency” in a special edition of TIME magazine called The Opioid Diaries (5 March 2018 ), which renders graphic testimony of the toll that an economic system which has virtually dismantled the public sphere (and the social security connected with it) has taken of neoliberal American society.

The point I am making is that Marx and Engels’ observation about a certain kind of class division as something generated by capitalist society is visible in these harrowing TIME photographs and interview-excerpts, but with a vengeance. In the introduction to this edition one is informed that drug overdoses alone account for more than 64 000 deaths in the USA annually. The relevant question is why so many people turn to hard drugs like heroin, which is almost impossible to let go once you have started. The answer, when everything is considered, is the kind of non-caring society that capitalism spawns. At least in social democracies like Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries capitalism has a counterbalance in their social security systems, which cultivate a sense of community absent from American society; an absence exacerbated by the dog-eat-dog collective mentality encouraged by Trump.

But to confirm the continued relevance of Marx, look at the following excerpt from The Communist Manifesto, which demonstrates Marx and Engels’ insight into the process of capital – one of the most famous lines from their work is in this extract (‘All that is solid…’):

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”(p.8).

With the advent of a globalised capitalist society there are very few countries which are exempt from this constant ‘creative destruction’ (Schumpeter) of everything familiar, for the sake of endless profit. This, too, contributes to the engendering of the relatively small group of ‘elites’ who occupy the managerial positions in relation to the advanced economy’s ‘gold collar workers’ who, like themselves, have mastered the latest technology. Small wonder that there is, by and large, no moral code anywhere that still functions as a kind of touchstone for the integrity of people’s actions, with very few, rare, individual exceptions. After all, in a world of ruthless competition, ethics seems like a luxury few can afford.