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Marx: A guide to present issues

By David Fasenfest (People's Daily)    10:45, May 07, 2018

Karl Marx (File photo)

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, which offers us an opportunity to reflect upon the intellectual legacy and importance of Marx today. In Marx’s time, most of global industrial production centered around England as capitalism emerged to radically alter the agriculture based economy of the time. Seismic changes displaced workers as the fields of England were transformed from the production of food to the production of wool in the service of industry. As Marx noted in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, imperial expansion leading to colonial developments in North America, India and China coupled with a system of global commerce served to create the revolutionary impulse toppling feudal Europe. This focus on the rise of industrial capitalism in England leads some to argue Marx is no longer relevant outside of Europe. However, many of Marx’s ideas and methods have the potential to serve as a guide to productive forces and relations of production, whether in the 21st or 19th century.

Let me first consider how Marx remains relevant today, and then comment on what Marx can tell us about the socio-political context of the US. At the risk of oversimplifying Marx, one can reduce his method to paying close attention to, and the identification of, irreversible changes in how people make their daily lives. This means carefully studying the historical path taken to the present; how things are produced -- including the technology used-- (what Marx called productive forces) and how changes in this production work were provoked by, and in turn provoked, changes in the direction and control of production itself (what he called the relations of production).

This historical materialist method enables scholars to study the inevitable and highly specific tension and interdependence between the political and economic dimensions of income and wealth creation. Arguably, it is the extent of this tension and how the interdependence is balanced and structured that renders the resulting system stable or unstable. Thus, Marx’s method encourages scholars to come to grips with the historical and cultural specificity of the Global South, including its on-going links to developments in the Global North. In this way, his work can function as a bridge to the various strands of 20th and 21st century Marxism that i) critically capture the ways in which capitalism develops in, and in turn impacts, specific regions of the world and ii) demonstrate how the different regions of the Global South are developing unevenly, relative to one another and relative to the imperialist countries, within the framework of 21st Century capitalist imperialism.

The detail in which Marx established the interpersonal, social and environmental hazards posed by unfettered commodification is another important aspect of his work that resonates with the world today. These hazards arise because, he wrote, the wealth of the nation appears to be the vast array of stuff we buy and sell. That is how wealth is measured; that is what productivity measures—the production of more products by any means necessary. The environmental cost is now becoming clear—locally in poor air quality; globally in climate change that threatens coastal cities.

These are only two of the ways that Marx’s work can help us understand the ongoing development of any part of the world, but especially the challenges countries of the Global South face in an international economy dominated by capitalist firms. In so doing, it can also be a guide on how to create a global political economic settlement not governed entirely by capitalist social and production relations.

Onto my second point: how Marx can help us understand the socio-political events in the US. In the developed capitalist countries, sundry dilemmas arise when the un-commodified social space is reduced to a bare minimum, such that even privacy is seen as something that can be bought and sold. This situation, in part, is what the controversy over Facebook and hacked US companies that collected personal data reflects. The Marxian perspective of commodification allows us to understand that personal data have been produced by the unpaid work of average citizens. This is like the unpaid work traditionally performed in all parts of the world for the family, tribe and community.

We can turn now to Marx’s notions of alienation to begin to understand the rise of right-wing populism in advanced capitalist countries like the US. These movements reject tradition political elites, whether they are on the right or left of center. Politicians’ embrace of neoliberal austerity, coupled with the increasing concentration of wealth that reflects the ever-greater appropriation of the surplus generated by workers, has decimated progressive unions, and left the working class stripped of most of the protections and benefits won in the decades since the end of World War II. Their vulnerability, and the reality that what little prosperity they appeared to have was based on debt, was made clear during the 2008 financial crisis. The response of the capitalist ruling class was to protect and reward financial capital while ignoring the plight of working men and women, what came to be known as ignoring mainstream public while protecting Wall Street. In the US, both the Democratic and Republican Parties embraced one form or other of neoliberalism, and the result was the surprising election of Donald Trump running on a reactionary platform demonizing migrant, all the while his administration carries out actions that benefits the wealthy, shreds what is left of the social safety net, and harms the environment.

In his Communist Manifesto, Marx states that "in Communist society, the present dominates the past." It is this sense that Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, urges the Party to study Marx to further the development of human society for the benefit of the people.

Marx points out, in Chapter 2 of the Manifesto, that the "abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at." With this in mind, Xi extolls the Party to lead the people in the great social revolution and achieve national rejuvenation by striving to strengthen its character as a Marxist party. It is through the study of Marx, through the reflection and interpretation of the Communist Manifesto, that the CPC can guide the nation's progress in the 21st Century.

(The author is a associate professor of sociology at Wayne State University in the US.)

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(Web editor: Bianji, Wu Chengliang)

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