A few weeks ago, Clem Sunter, South Africa’s most well known scenario planner, wrote a very interesting article for News24. It got me thinking, and I have come back to it again and again, so thought I’d share it with you. He argues that maybe Karl Marx had a point. He certainly did anticipate where unbridle capitalism would lead.
And maybe he was also right that one response to this eventual world situation (the one he foresaw, and the one we’re living in over 150 years later) would be the “under class” rising up. I don’t doubt that this is one possible future for us. History tells us that when enough people are unhappy, they tend to get together and start burning stuff and killing rich people. We shouldn’t think that couldn’t happen today. Sunter and Marx are both futurists and visionaries. It’s time we listened more to them, and started building a new world.
On your Marx
I am not a closet Marxist; but I have always admired the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto as a prophetic analysis of the modern trend of globalisation. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were spot on with many of their views on the nature and shortcomings of Capitalism. It was just that their conclusion that everything should be put in the hands of the State has, in retrospect, proved disastrously wrong. Stalin and Mao bear testament to this statement. However, the long-bearded Karl and Friedrich can hardly be blamed for the distortion of their ideology by dictators who used it in order to remain in power. The authors’ objective was to protect workers’ rights.
Consider the following abbreviated quotes from Chapter 1 of the manifesto. “Meantime the markets kept growing, the demand ever rising. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry, by industrial millionaires, the leaders of whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.”
“Modern industry has established the world market. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land.”
“The bourgeoisie has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of chivalrous enthusiasm in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value.”
“The bourgeoisie has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusaders.”
“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.”
“The need of a constantly expanding market for its producers chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”
“In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.”
The consequence of all the previous paragraphs is: “a class of labourers, who live only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market. Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm.”
It is hard to believe that these words (in German) were first published in February 1848, 163 years ago.
They are as good a description of the current economic state of the world as you will find in any newspaper or on any website today. The only aspect they don’t cover is the debt crisis except for the fact that as soon as a labourer receives his wages “he is set upon by the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker etc.” You have to say that their choice of language is exquisite too.
The authors’ recommendation is contained in the final words of the manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”
Of course, the working men of the world never did unite because the rivalry between nations trumps co-operation between their working classes. Trade unions are really the only protection employees have against their employers whether they are employed in the private sector or public sector. Moreover, before you complain that Karl and Friedrich painted far too dark a picture of employers and now we have corporate governance and legislation protecting workers and their conditions, let me put one question to you: Have you come across one company that has, instead of retrenching workers during this recession, cut salaries of directors and management to keep everybody in a job?
Overseas, in places like the UK and US, it has been a bloodbath with the top guys still going home with enormous bonuses. The Gini coefficient in companies measuring the remuneration of the highest paid 20% versus the lowest paid 20% has risen remorselessly. It is time to take on board some of the criticisms levelled by Marx and Engels and seek one’s own solutions.
Furthermore, with youth unemployment reaching record highs in the majority of economies around the world, the bourgeoisie is obliged to sit down with government and trade unions to work out a new dispensation. It requires the same leap in intellect as occurred in 1848. Otherwise, the situation will only get worse and we will face not just a winter but a spring, summer and autumn of discontent.
Hence, on your Marx, get set, go! Let’s do it: create an economy where personal worth is a whole lot more than exchange value; and chivalrous enthusiasm replaces egotistical calculation. After all, we are human beings.