Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Get on your Marx

David Seaton's News Links
At this writing I am sixty four years old and the immense bubble that has burst and is now deflating all around us has been inflating itself since I was a tiny child.

This bubble world is the world that I have always lived in and, unless you are considerably older than I am or live in an undeveloped country then, it is your world too.


When I was very young the "commie menace" hysteria began, and one of my earliest TV memories in suburban America, beside Howdy Doody, of course, was of the McCarthy hearings and the Korean war.

Karl Marx and all who sailed in him were taboo, trefa, haram. Compared to what Karl Marx was then, today's villain, Osama bin Laden, is Brad Pitt.

Then, later on in high school and especially in the atmosphere of 1960s college life, it was titillating to provoke teachers and parents, and especially the friends of parents, with snippets from Marx. During the Vietnam war it was a way of showing "attitude".

But truth to tell, the bubble world that we lived in was so different from the world Marx described that none of what he said made that much sense. In fact, looking back, I would say the whole point of our now fast disappearing bubble was that it was created so that Marx would not make any sense.

Until recently the original Karl has never spoken to me that directly. However, I have always found myself gravitating toward people like Marvin Harris or Eric Hobsbawm, formed in Marxist analysis: I love the way Harris explains why the Aztecs were cannibals and I love the way Hobsbawm writes history as a process, not as a series of biographies of "great" men. I could be considered a "contact" Marxist, like somebody who gets stoned off the stuffy air in places where other people are smoking quantities of hashish. But, "Das Kapital" itself was fairly impenetrable for me... As I said, I had trouble relating to its cold dissection of the 19th century English economy. My 19th century England is Dickens and Conan Doyle.

Now, as I try to balance the contradictory warnings of people who I think make sense, people like Nouriel Roubini, Paul Krugman, James Kunstler, Peter Schiff or Angela Merkel, all their takes on the crisis that I read are like the famous Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant: each of them is describing accurately what comes to their hand, but I get the feeling that none of them is describing the whole animal. Therefore I think that all of them are right and all of them are simultaneously wrong.

Thus, searching for some synthesis, I am beginning to discover Karl Marx in the same way that a traveling salesman who with a bad hangover in a flea bitten hotel, far from home in the middle of a bad night, in the middle of a bad week, might open a Gideon Bible and discover Jesus.

The first thing I think it is important to do is to separate Marx from Lenin. Lenin is action, he breaks and recreates: Lenin is to political action what Pablo Picasso was to painting. Marx for Lenin is only like a cookbook to a great cook: a starting point. What he was interested in was the chopping, the dicing and the frying... what ended up on the plate. Lenin is all "see snake, kill snake".

Marx for Marx is a bit different I think.

Although Marx said that understanding the world was only useful as a way of changing it, he was mostly about the understanding and understanding is what we need now.

As I fumble with the keys, Marx seems to me to say that capitalism is a historical process that will, as time goes on, become so contradictory as to destroy itself.

The old boy thought that the great day was not that far off and that it would happen in some highly advanced country like Germany. When Lenin made a revolution in primitive, illiterate Russia and called it Marxist, most Marxists, like most millenarians always do, swallowed their doubts and, like the "end of days" crowd, waited to ascend into heaven ... many were still waiting when the Soviet Union imploded.

In my opinion what Marx got wrong was the timing and what Lenin got wrong was the place. Capitalism wasn't ripe yet.

Perhaps, with the fulfillment of its potential that globalization represents we are actually going to live to witness the capitalist version of the Rapture.

The logic would be that the USA is the cutting edge, the vanguard of capitalism, and that unlike all other advanced capitalist nations, in America the economic system is not overlaid on a centuries old, traditional culture. In the United States of America the economic system is the culture itself. Eb-dee eb-dee eb-dee ebdee- That's ALL FOLKS!

If this is really a process with a beginning, a middle, and an end then it would be natural for the whole thing to start rotting where it has developed to its fullest.

So it stands to reason that if this system ever finally "enters into contradiction," that is to say, is torn apart by the conflicts of interests and the subsequent struggle between its different elements, then logically it will happen first and most clearly in the USA.

What would be an example of "entering into contradiction" a sign of this "End of Days"?

The "inflation versus deflation" polemic is that sort of contradiction: destroying the value of the currency in order to make possible consumption of foreign goods which must be paid for with the worthless money that we print and give to other countries that in turn have to lend it back to us without hope of payment in order to keep their own populations employed and doing all of this, not because we are stupid, but because any other alternative would be so painful and disruptive as to be unthinkable.

Getting into that sort of idiotic shit and not being able to get out of it could be called "entering into contradiction". The bubble has run out of road.

Anyway I'll keep on reading and trying to make reality and what I read fit together somehow. DS

1 comment:

agog said...

"...the capitalist version of the Rapture": brilliant turn of phrase!

It is still too early to know whether we can return to some approximation of the status quo ante, at least temporarily, or some other economic system will arise from the ashes.

The latter alternative is made more likely by the energy crisis awaiting us (and being hastened by the plunge in oil prices we are witnessing) to be followed inevitably by the malign effects of climate change.

Ultimately, I expect some sort of steady state economy will have to be embraced (if we are lucky) but the timing of these sort of tectonic developments is hard to forecast.

With early being the new wrong it is tricky trying to know how and when to respond.

Re your skepticism about Obama: all is forgiven. You were right, unfortunately.