Happy Birthday, Karl Marx — you were right

Marx’s 200th birthday was two days ago. With two centuries in the can, I’d be interested to hear what ole Karl thinks of the state of things, though I imagine it would take him a while to get used to life in the 21st century, what with our smartphones, Netflix, and talk of life extension and artificial intelligence. Even so, I’m sure he’d find that he nailed it, so far as the basics are concerned, those basics being his critique of capitalism.

Class struggle is still with us, capitalism is still self-destructive, and we are still told that there are no other options, that capitalism is the only game in town. Or, to put a spin of humor on it, “capitalism is the worst system out there, except for all the others.” (Winston Churchill) The great importance of Marx for us, today, is not so much about adopting “Marxism” (as system developed by Marx’s followers) as it is in uniting against the system of capitalism.  

In celebration of Marx’s birthday, I’ll be watching The Young Karl Marx this Saturday with my local branch of Democratic Socialists of America. (See the trailer, below.) Looks like a good flick.

Two hundred years after Grandpa Marx’s birth, we can reminisce on his central insights. Here’s Jason Barker writing in the New York Times:

In 2002, the French philosopher Alain Badiou declared at a conference I attended in London that Marx had become the philosopher of the middle class. What did he mean? I believe he meant that educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its agreement that Marx’s basic thesis — that capitalism is driven by a deeply divisive class struggle in which the ruling-class minority appropriates the surplus labor of the working-class majority as profit — is correct. Even liberal economists such as Nouriel Roubini agree that Marx’s conviction that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to destroy itself remains as prescient as ever. From Happy Birthday Karl Marx. You Were Right!

As evidence of Marx’s insight that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to destroy itself, one need only look at the person of Donald Trump and his Republican devotees, who are doubling down on the same policies that created the mess we are in: deregulation for corporations, combined with a light tax burden on the rich, combined with a healthy amount of hate and anger aimed at minority groups.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.

Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress. Happy Birthday Karl Marx. You Were Right!

I think it’s quite poorly worded to say that “social justice movements..owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx.” If there were no Marx, there would still be resistance to the totalitarian tyranny of capitalism. In fact, resistance and reaction against tyranny was sort of one of the fundamental principles of Marx.

Yes, people do see through the bullshit

I was having brunch on Sunday at a vegan cafe in downtown Santa Cruz, and there was a server, a young guy, who was waiting on an older dude, who made jokes about his age.

“I’m not 17 anymore,” he said. “I’m dyslexic,” by which he meant that he’s not 17 but 71. I picked up on the joke, but when he went on to more complex number-play, he lost me. Sunday morning brunch isn’t the time nor place for deeper thought.

The server tolerated the bad jokes, as good servers usually do. Then the jolly 71 year old made a leftist political comment, a comment I no longer recall. The young server had a quick reply, though. “Well, what do you expect in a neo-colonial global capitalist society?”

The 71 year old leftist was impressed and asked the young server where he studied.

“I didn’t go to school.”

The old leftist asked him the same question a second time, worded slightly differently, and the young server laughed and said that he read books but had never studied, formally, not past high school.

The old leftist seemed more than a little surprised at this self-educated young comrade, but he shouldn’t have been, not if he’d really studied his Marx, because people eventually see through the lies and manipulation. There will always be resistance to tyranny, and Marx understood this.

Today there is resistance, particularly from the young, who are now starting to understand that they will be inheriting a shit-load of problems created by capitalism. It’s no longer possible to mask the mess. So, in order to hold back change, capitalism needs a Strong Man like Trump, an asshole with no shame, someone to beat back the resistance and force capitalism upon us. But people are realizing that capitalism has failed, and they’re looking for alternatives.

Marx arrives at no magic formula for exiting the enormous social and economic contradictions that global capitalism entails (according to Oxfam, 82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the world’s richest 1 percent). What Marx did achieve, however, through his self-styled materialist thought, were the critical weapons for undermining capitalism’s ideological claim to be the only game in townHappy Birthday Karl Marx. You Were Right!

And this is precisely what is happening: people are realizing that capitalism is not the only game in town. Things don’t have to be this way — there are alternatives — and Marx was one person who understood and articulated this critical idea. So, happy birthday to my bushy bearded comrade.





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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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