(Question asked by the Marshall Society)
Runner-up: Shay Gillams
From a liberal perspective, neither Marx’s wider economic ideas, nor the details of his theory, are important or relevant today. The notion that capitalism is a self-contradictory system which cannot bear its own weight certainly hasn’t played out, thus somewhat discrediting a primary tenet of his thought; and deindustrialization (and the ensuing decline of an industrial working class) and the fall of the Soviet Union have worked to make Marxist economics less practically relevant now than ever before. The specifics of his economic theory are easy for liberals to refute. For instance, the labour theory of value, which dominates so much of Volume 1 of Capital (the only volume of the economics-focused work written by Marx, as the other two were assembled by Engels after Marx’s death, drawing together, in Engels’ words, a “disordered jumble of quotations … which certainly cannot be deciphered by anyone but me, and then only with difficulty”), should be held to account for ignoring the merits of land, capital, risk, time, entrepreneurship and ideas. In terms of strictly economic thought, which should be distinguished from cultural, social or political thought in this context, there’s little to be salvaged. Indeed, if the discerning Marshall Society member is looking for a political thinker with strong views on the value of labour, the ability and imperative of a population to rise up and resist unjust authority, and powers and subjection in society, CULA recommends reading a work by one of the founding fathers of liberalism: John Locke’s Second Treatise Of Government.
What might remain relevant, however is the narrative of capitalism as an uncaring and alienating economic system, which Marx promulgated. As Gareth Stedman Jones wrote in his 2016 work Marx: Greatness and Illusion, Marx’s literary characterisation of the economic system critiqued capitalism’s “endlessly inchoate, incessant restless and unfinished character”, “its subversion of all inherited cultural practices and beliefs”, and “its turning of everything into an object for sale”. This vision is resonating with people, as is apparent to anyone with a Twitter feed full of people angry at big businesses, lobbying and corporate greed. The fact that this element of Marx’s thought remains relevant today is, from a liberal standpoint, a consequence of a lack of directed markets or, as Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz calls it, “progressive capitalism”. Indeed, we must always recognise that markets can fail, and require some regulation and government legislation to ensure that they’re not fundamentally working against the interests of wider society. This has been a feature of Liberal Democrat politics for quite some time (for instance, take Ed Davey’s attempts to diversify the UK’s energy supply to reduce dependency on Russian energy in 2014), and one we mustn’t forget.
Winning entry: Peter McLaughlin
If Teen Vogue is a good indicator of the state of popular discourse (and of course it is), Marx is back.¹ As the liberal capitalist order is facing its biggest crisis since 1945, people are returning to its most famous critic. This is deeply unfortunate. Despite Marx’s fame and influence, his understanding of economy and society is stuck in the 19th century, and can be no help for those of us looking to understand (or change) the world of the 21st.
Marx is often invoked by those who oppose the static nature of mainstream economics (with its focus on equilibrium) and who want to develop a dynamic political economy. And indeed, Marx was concerned with capitalist development. But he saw this development as driven by class struggle; and in the 19th century, that meant the struggle between the ascendant bourgeoisie and the exploited proletariat. Marx foresaw a proletarian revolution that would overthrow bourgeois hegemony and lead toward a classless society.
As it happened, however, the bourgeois era died not with a bang, but a whimper, through economic and political developments. For example, the rise of homeownership in the 20th century West created a middle class of capital-owning workers who straddled Marx’s definitions of bourgeois and proletarian, and who came to dominate economic life after WW2. The impact of such developments means that the class structure of today’s capitalism is incredibly different from the 19th century bourgeois-proletariat struggle.² Because of this, Marx’s ideas cannot account for class and class struggle in today’s world: he had no way of theorising capitalist society after bourgeois dominance, because he thought the fall of the bourgeoisie would be the death of capitalism.
Further, Marx’s belief that we should understand economic evolution in terms of class struggle is problematic even independent of his account of that struggle; for his political economy fails to properly account for politics. It is true that Marx was not an ‘economic determinist’, but nonetheless, he aimed to explain political developments (like everything else) in terms of class struggle. But although such a strategy could at least partially make sense of 19th century politics, the central events of the 20th—the World Wars, the fortunes of decolonisation, the rise and fall of fascism, the struggles of feminism, even the life of the Soviet Union—escape it: any adequate account of these will have to make reference to interests, institutions, and processes that go beyond class struggle. And if Marx’s ideas cannot make sense of these central political events, they cannot help us understand their impact on the economic order.
Foucault once wrote: “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought like a fish in water; that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else.”³ Marx wrote in an era of class relations that history has altered irrevocably, and with an understanding of politics that the intervening time has shown to be deeply false. Those who are looking to make sense of the current crisis, or to go beyond the limitations of contemporary economic thought, should look elsewhere.
¹ Corcione, ‘Who Is Karl Marx: Meet the Anti-Capitalist Scholar’, Teen Vogue (2018): https://www.teenvogue.com/story/who-is-karl-marx
² See for example Savage et al., ‘A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment’, Sociology, 47/2 (2013), pp.219–250, for an example of the multifaceted and complex accounts of class and class relations that are required in today’s world.
³ The Order of Things, trans. Sheridan (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1973), p.262.