The recession and the collapse of many capitalist economies has resulted in a boom for booksellers — at least in the sales of the works of Karl Marx.
The economic crisis has spawned a resurgence of interest in Karl Marx. Worldwide sales of Das Kapital have shot up (one lone German publisher sold thousands of copies in 2008, compared with 100 the year before), a measure of a crisis so broad in scope and devastation that it has global capitalism -— and its high priests -— in an ideological tailspin.
Yet even as faith in neoliberal orthodoxies has imploded, why resurrect Marx? To start, Marx was far ahead of his time in predicting the successful capitalist globalization of recent decades. He accurately foresaw many of the fateful factors that would give rise to today s global economic crisis what he called the ‘contradictions’ inherent in a world comprised of competitive markets commodity production and financial speculation.
In the 1980s neoliberalism was advocated as the panacea for the world’s economic ills. The fact that the “structural adjustment programmes” imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had a disastrous effect on health and education in much of Africa did not seem to worry the proponents of neoliberalism very much. By the 1990s many advocates of neoliberalism were saying that socialism was dead.
And in the 1990s many people could be excused for thinking that Marx’s ideas had been shown to be wrong, and that there could never be a revival of interest in them. Most of the “socialist” countries had abandoned socialism, and often followed the advice of neoliberal Westerners to liberalise their economics as well as their politics. In Russia the immediate result of this was a drastic drop in life-expecatancy, as health services deteriorated. Another result was a gangsterisation of the economy.
And, as the article quoted above points out, much of this was predicted by Marx. Capitalism has changed a great deal in the 150 years since Marx wrote about it, but some of the fundamentals remain the same.
But while Marx was quite good at analysing the weaknesses of capitalism, his proposals for alternatives were not as successful. And some of his fundamentalist followers who tried to apply his solutions in a spirit of ideological correctness regardless of their practical effects produced results as disastrous of those of the neoliberals.
So we should not be surprised that the sales of Marx’s works are booming. But we can hope that the buyers will pay more attention to Marx’s analysis of the problems than to some of the solutions proposed by him and his followers in the past.
Perhaps the adage of G.K. Chesterton can be applied to this, mutatis mutandis: “As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism, but there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.”
And so I hope that people will say, “As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in socialism, but there was once a rosy time of innocence when I believed in socialists.”
Trade unionists and communists in South Africa seem to have the unhappy knack of allying themselves to all the wrong people and causes, and attacking all the wrong targets. Here in South Africa we have an example of unrestrained capitalism that the government dare not control, and which is a magnificent example of the application of neoliberalism in practice — the taxi industry. I would love to see someone do a Marxist analysis of that.