Karl Marx and the Future

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The respectful bourgeois American newspaper New York Times, on April 30, 2018, has published an article by Jason Barker, an associate professor of philosophy, with the cheerful title: Happy Birthday, Karl Marx, You Were Right!

Soon after, on May 4, 2018, the voice of the City of London, the equally respectful and bourgeois Financial Times hosted a book review by the economic historian Adam Tooze under the impressive headlines “Why Karl Marx is more relevant than ever”.

On May 3rd , 2018,  another British voice of  big capital, the well known  journal Economist published  also an article on Marx’s Bicentenary, this time very venomous, ignorant and of bad taste but neverthelles with a  noteworthy warning in its title: “ Second time, a farce- Rulers of the world, read Karl Marx ! On his bicentenary Marx’s diagnosis  of capitalism’s flaws is surpisingly relevant

A question is unavoidable: why these internationally influential Press organs of powerful sections of the capitalist class publish such articles dedicated to the worst revolutionary enemy in history of this same capitalist class?

It becomes clear for all to see, and surprizing for its declared enemies and disappointed former supporters,  that Marx’s legacy is is still alive and well, relevant even for  the  class enemy’s camp.

The mantra of his death, dominating everywhere the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, cannot  stand  any longer. Marx was considered to be buried long ago, together with communism, revolution, even History itself. Now, apparently the “Red Knight returns”. No more as a «specter» or as multiple «specters», as in the famous, in one sense even prophetic, book by Jacques Derrida in 1993; Marx comes back vindicated in his analysis and prognosis(“You were right!”). He is considered even  “surprisingly”, “ more relevant than ever” as we can read in the Press the most hostile to his revolutionary ideas and to the revolutionary praxis  inspired by his theory.

The New York Times, Financial Times or the extremely hostile Economist, obviously did not become Marxist or “Marx-friendly”. The reason of the publication of such articles,  can be found in a passage in the above mentioned article  in NYT. It refers to Nouriel Roubini, the mainstream economist and financier who became famous post festum, as one of the very few among his coleagues who was  warning for the coming catastrophe: the eruption of the world capitalist crisis, after the collapse of the US sub-prime mortgage market in 2007, the debacle of Lehman Brothers in 2008 followed by the global financial meltdown and the Great Recession (or “Third Great Depression”).

Even liberal economists”, Barker writes in NYT, “such as Nouriel Roubini agree that Marx’s conviction that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to destroy itself remains as prescient as ever”. Such statement are often dismissed as » catastrophist» by self-proclaimed skeptic «Marxists» or former Marxists who prove to be more optimistic for capitalism’s future than the capitalists themeselves  who have indeed “something” to lose, the usurped  social wealth produced by others!

The vicioulsy anti-Marxist, anti-communist article in the Economist warns: » The backlash against capitalism is mounting-if more often in the form of populaist anger than of proletarian solidarity. So far liberal reformers are proving sadly inferior to their predecessors in terms of both their grasp of the crisis and their ability to generate solutions. They should use the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth to reacquaint themselves with the great man- not only to understand the serious faults that he brilliantly identified in the system, but to remind themselves of the disaster that awaits if they fail to confront them. »

This belated, after the event, forced recognition of Marx’s relevance  by his opponents has more to do with the historic  failure of  bourgeois economics itself  to forsee the global capitalist crisis than with a real understanding of Marx himself, of his discoveries of the inner contradictions of capital, of the immanent limits of capitalism as a social mode of production, driving it to crises and to its historical doom.

In a most spectacular way, the failure was shown in the legendary meeting of leading bourgeois economists called by the Queen Elisabeth in the aftermath of the 2008 global crash, and where  everybody remained silent, unable to answer to the question of the Queen: why all of them – economists, think tanks, bankers and banks, institutions such as the IMF- failed completely to see, predict or warn for the coming global financial catastrophe?   

Ten years later, more than a decade after, the world is still shaken by an on-going, still unresolved,  global capitalist crisis, threatening now, in 2018,  with new, more devastating economic, political and geopolitical explosions. The Queen’s question remains unanswered. Not only bourgeois economics  cannot explain the past– the lack of prognosis of the 2007 global crisis and the lack of understanding of its deepest causes; also it cannot understand the present – why the  crisis remains unresolved  despite the extraordinary, heterodox measures of gigantic stimulus packages, quantitative easing, and  nearly zero interest rates, taken  by central banks and governments; and, last but not at all least, it cannot forsee the future although sinister signs  appear already in the horizon.

While we just about mustered the palliatives to survive the previous slump, there is no confidence we ‘ve got enough left in the cupboard for next time” says Tom Clark answering YES to the question of Financial Times (24 April 2018) Has economics failed?

Answering NO to the same question the optimist economist Chris  Giles, neverthelles comments:  “The future is uncertain. The present is uncertain. The past is uncertain ”(op.cit)

Minsky or Marx?

It is worthy looking back to an interesting  presentation by Janet Yellen, former Chair of the US Federal Reserve, on April 16, 2009, to the 18th Annual Hyman P. Minsky Conference on the State of the US and World Economies under the title A Minsky Meltdown: Lessons for Central Bankers.

She emphasizes that the crash represent  a most serious » systemic breakdown«. She challenges superficially approaches blaming «complacency by investors«. She rejects also as narrow, based on a limited  national perspective, the » savings glut» hypothesis advanced by her predecessor Chairman of the Fed  Ben Bernanke. According to this admirer of Milton Friedman, the source of the crisis was» a  glut of foreign saving mainly generated in developing countries such as China and India [that] fuelled demand  for dollar-denominated assets «[…] combined with a low US personal saving rate, large US government deficits, and high productivity gains to produce a huge current account deficit«.

Yellen bases her approach to Hyman Minsky’s «financial instability hypothesis» – quite popular  after 2008. She stresses that in 2008 » the Minsky meltdown  is global in nature reflecting the ever-increasing interconnectedness of financial markets and institutions around the world. The recession is the first during the post war period to see simultaneous contractions in output in Europe, Japan, and North America»

Always based on the Minskyan approach, Yellen, from the first moment, and in her 2009 speech, supported  all the heterodox measures taken, after the Lehman Brothers debacle, by the Fed (and much later by the ECB) to restrain the slide to the abyss by introducing huge «stimulus packages», near zero interest rates, and  quantitative easing (QE) schemes  that provided trillions of dollars in liquidity. For Yellen all these were «Minsky’s policy prescriptions«. She approvingly quotes  Paul Mc Culley who emphasized  the importance of QE  refering to it as » the reverse Minsky journey«, reversing the production of high risk finance speculative and Ponzi bubbles ( Paul Mc Culley, Saving Capitalistic  Banking from Itself, Global Central Bank Focus, PIMCO February 2009).

The problem  is that, ten years after, all these Minsky’s policy  prescriptions, praised by Yellen and all Minskyans, liberal or left, failed. Even worst: they produced  more gigantic  financial speculative bubbles than those  that burst in 2007-2008 threatening to new devastating explosions.

The current debates about a more «activist» or a more «prudent»  monetary and interest increase  policy for «bubble» management give  a feeling of a hopless  déjà vu. The same arguments were exchanged fruitlessly also  ten years ago, and they were mentioned in the 2009 speech by Janet Yellen.

It is not solely a gifted and insightful post-Keynesian- Institutionalist  like Minsky or his admirers like Yellen  who are refuted by reality. During the past decade,  both the policies opposing  neo-liberal monetarists focusing on money circulation without fiscal measures versus the post-Keynesians supporting the combination of fiscal and monetary central interventions, demonstratively failed. Both economic strategies elaborated by  competing  schools of  bourgeois economics after the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression, Keynesianism and neo-liberalism, in all their shades and combinations, proved during the on-going global capitalist crisis, totally unable to deal with it and with the global contradictions driving it. As we have stressed in other occasion, the failure of bourgeois economics represent a strategic impasse for capitalism, what we had described, in a previous essay, as the death agony of homo economicus.

Marx’s method superiority is reflected  to the collapse of its opposite, methodological individualism, common in all different  or conflicting strands of bourgeois political economy starting from an individual agent making rational choices after  estimating risks and profits.

To put it in a few, simple words : the capitalist class is running out of economic strategic options. Such a situation where the polarizing  sharpening contradictions cannot be resolved drives the rulers of the system towards attempts for a «solution» by extra-economic, brutal, military means: imperialist aggression and war.

A new stage of the crisis

The  results of this impasse are  here  to be seen by all. The reversal now of the desperate measures taken after Lehman Borthers collapse proves to be a medication worst than the disease. Starting from the US Fed and soon followed by the ECB, a reversal of the «reverse Minsky journey» is taking place now, by ending QE programs and increasing interest rates. But this U-turn evolves in a dramatically changed environment: rising protectionism, Trumpian unlilateralism, trade wars, sharpening international antagonisms, dangerously increasing  geopolitical explosions, internationally expanding wars from Central Asia to the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the borders of Europe(the Balkans, Ukraine). In such a context  this apparently prudent «reversal of the reverse Minsky journey» already  creates havoc.

The new dramatic stage of crisis in Argentina and Turkey are  symptoms of the deteriorating global crisis, marked by the collapse of  currencies, overindebtedness, deficits and or the desperate turn once more to the IMF draconean straitjacket,  rightly cursed by its victims.

Not only social economic disasters and barbaric wars are in the agenda but popular uprizings and revolutions as well.

The revolutionary tide of tremendous popular mobilizations in South Europe and Northern Africa in 2011-2013, from Puerta del Sol to Syntagma Square to Tahrir to Gezi Park, came out of the impact of the shock of the first wave of the post 2008 global economic earthquake. Although a retreat followed, linked to imperialist aggressions and fomenting of reactionary civil wars,as in the case of Syria, and the Middle East, these mass struggles of the first stage of the global crisis represent the prelude of the real drama which comes in the next period.

It is this last prospect that frightens the ruling classes and makes the liberal economists, seeing also the danger,  to reluctantly aknowledge throughout the on-going  global crisis, the superiority of Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism. They are frightened by the fact that his prognosis of the the tendency of capitalism to  self-destruction  is empirically confirmed/ It does not mean that they grasp his method of historical materialist dialectics,or, obviously, that they share his revolutionary conclusions.

Decline and Transition

Many liberal, conservative,including some left analysts can see today, in conditions of unresolved global crisis, that it is rather possible a historical end of the crisis-ridden declining capitalist system. What is unthinkable for them, even impossible to consider, particulalry after 1989-91, it is not the end of an old, historically exhausted world system but the beginning of a new one.

Hegel, although in idealist terms, could grasp and theorize the contradiction , in his Philosophy of the Right: historical decline, decadence of the old is the negative form of appearance of the emergence of the new, a transition through the sharpening of the contradictions immannent in the old formation. If there are not the conditions of resolution of the contradictions, if a dialectical Aufhebung is impossible, then the outcome is the mutual ruin of both opposite poles.

A real, dialectical Aufhebung, according to Marx is not a reconciliation of the opposites, a Hegelian pseudo-negation of negation (K.Marx, 1844 Manuscripts)  but a break in continuity– a Cäsur to use  the term of Hölderlin-  a qualitative leap, a revolutionary transformation of both poles of the contradiction.

This dialectical path of cognition is considered as «metaphysics» by the dominant positivist thought, particulalry among economists and sociologists. In his Critique of bourgeois political economy, Marx showed that its main methodological flaw was its incapacity to go deeper than appearances, to distinguish them from essence, the specific inner driving contradictions.

In the post-2007 global crisis, neoliberal or post-Keynesian economists (including Minsky or theorists of «financialization, the liberal or left)  see mainly or solely a crisis of  the dominant, deregulated, overexpanded   finance sector of the capitalist economy separating it from the production sphere, from production of surplus value as the specific  form of expropriation of the surplus of the direct producers  by those who dominate the means and the process of production. Logically the theories of «financialisation» are linked or  lead to the theories of the «disappearance» of the proletariat or of its substitution by a new class, the «precariat»( which, in reality it is a structural-constitutive  part of the proletariat, as Marx has demonstrated in the Manuscript of 1861-63 as well as in his analysis of relative over-population in Capital).

The fetishization of  finance, ( fictitious capital is considered by Marx as the » absolute fetish») separating it, or  confusing it with, or substituing it from  production proper, obfuscates its mediated dependency from the capital accumulation process as a whole clashing with its immanent limits; at the last instance, mainstream, heterodox, or self-proclaimed Marxist economists today separate  money and capital from the dominant value relation based on the inner twofold nature, abstract and concrete, of social labor.

Decline of the value  form and Life

Without a critique of the labor theory of value of the classical political economy, such as Marx has achieved in his magnum opus, Das Kapital, its is impossible to have a scientific conception of the mediations between  value, money, money capital, credit and finance. For this reason, Marx is more actual than ever before as the theoretical compass and indispensable methodological guide in today’s global, historical, structural and systemic crisis of globalized capital.

The primary cause  of the  current crisis is not «irresponsible de-regulation of globally overexpanding finance» in all its exotic ramifications to be solved by a kind of Minskyan re-regulation.  «Die wahre  Schranke  der kapitalistischen Production ist das Kapital selbst«(Das Kapital, III, ME Werke vol. 25 p.260)- «The real barrier of the capitalist production is capital itself» Marx  emphasises» It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa , thre means of production are not mere means  for  a constant expansion of the life process[Lebenprozesses] of the society of the producers[…] The means -unconditional development of the productive forces of society- comes continuously in conflict with the limited purpose, the self -expansion of the existing capital » ( Capital 3, Progress in English, p. 250).

It is the historical decline of the value relation itself as regulative principle of social economic life under capitalism that manifests itself in the current finacial-economic impasse with all ist catarophic  implications.

Capitalist globalization of  the last three decades leading to the 2007 implosion has driven to its extremes this on-going conflict in the inverted relation  between means and purpose . The over-accumulation of capital exacerbated by liberalization and globalization of finance reached a crucial point of irreconciliable incompatibility with the pressing, illimited demands of what Marx  calls the life process –Lebensprozess– of society, including living Nature.

Against all forms of economicist distortions of the mechanical pseudo-Marxism of the Second International and of Stalinism, we have to grasp again that Life is the central category of Marx’s revolutionary theory.

It is unfortunately forgotten or burried under the weight of the old Stalinist Soviet textbooks that Marx himself defined, in German Ideology,  the «mode of production«, the key category of historical materialism, as Lebensweise, form or mode of existence  or modality of  social life. Specific modes of the historically evolving social «metabolism»  (Stoffwechsel) between the human being and nature.

Life is the red thread thoughout Marx’s feverish  theoretical search, from the 1844 Manuscripts and  German Ideology to Grundrisse  and Das Kapital. The  omnipresent, recurrent leitmotiv is life, life process, living labor (dominated by dead labor, capital) of living bodies, life determining consiousness.

Debt Crisis as Transition

Marx has profoundly analyzed and foreseen the tremendous role of credit both to a «monstruous» [Ungeheure, in German. Kapital III, p. 452], expansion of the scale of [capitalist] production and of enterprises» ( p. 436 in the English edition), as well to the explosion of crises: » credit accelerates the violent eruptions of this contradiction-crises- and thereby the elements of disintegration of the old mode of production«( op. cit p. 441)

Here the deepest nature of the current  global crisis can be clearly seen. Not only a crisis of capital  over-production as a way out from it but » elements of disintegration of the old mode of production»- and, even more important moments of  transition beyond the  disintegrating old world capitalist system to a new mode of production: » The two characteristics immanent in the credit system are, on one hand to develop the incentive of  of capitalist production, enrichment through exploitation of  the labor of others,  to the purest and most colossal form of gambling    and swindling  and to reduce more and more the number of the few who exploit the social wealth; on the other hand, to constitute the form of transition to a new mode of production«(op.cit).

Everybody, not only professional economists, can see  today’s  world  taking the form of a most colossal casino of   financial gambling and swindling; every body can see, as well, the monstruous ever growing inequality, when, in 2017, according to Oxfam, 82 per cent of the global wealth generated last year  went to a parasitical oligarchy of the world richest 1 per cent. What cannnot be seen is the transition beyond this hell, to a new, realy human world, namely world  communism, a new  community without exploitation, oppression, humiliation of  humang beings by human beings.  The falacious myth of late Thatcher TINA, there is no alternative, unfortunatley still dominates, despite the irreversible bankruptcy of Thatcherite neoliberalism in 2007. The actual importance, the most important contribution by Marx  today is precisely to provide a guiding method  to grasp the driving forces of our epoch of transition in the present historical moment of the greatest dangers for humankind.

Present Past Future

The representatives of the old dying world repeat ad nauseam the statement of the already above mentionned FT British analyst :  “The future is uncertain. The present is uncertain. The past is uncertain”. Solidly based on Marx’s legacy those fighting for a new liberated  world can proclaim quite the opposite.

The present of an all sided systemic crisis and of all forms of social conflict, is the present to be grasped in theory and fought in revolutionary practice as living, not predetermined, non linear history of social struggle.     “History» warned Marx in Holy Familyis not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims«. And the objective  aim of the oppressed and exploited  remains universal human emancipation- the end of all forms of alienation i.e. world communism

The past is not a  burden of deceptions and defeats to be forgotten. Amnesia is not a virtue. Marx is crucial to understand the distortions of his own theory by epigons and bureaucrats, using it  either for class  collaboration and reformist accomodation to capitalisn or as a State ideology of Stalinist bureaucratic self-justification. Without Marx, we cannot discover the precious lessons of the revolutionary past with all its uncompleted  demands still alive. We cannot save the «Tradition of the Oppressed«, as Walter Benjamin called it,  the legacy of all the epic victories and tragic defeats  of the world socialist revolution following its  beginning in October 1917 in Russia.

The legacy and the method of Marx, the new horizon that he expressed theoretically and opened to see and act  for humakind, is crucial not only  to grasp the past as a depository of lessons but as a guide to the present for a leap to the future- including to fight back against confusion and the loss of historical orientation after 1991.

Through Marx , it is possible to grasp what really  happened in the Soviet Union , why it happened, why this break  in the continuity of world history initiated a transition, which was blocked leading to disasters and then to disintegration, the demise of the USSR.

As a matter of fact two incompatible lines were in conflict already from the 1920s, as Stalin himself  admited:  Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and the theory of «socialism in a single country». The later was the opposite of  what Marx had insisted upon  throught his life and struggle.  The post-1848 Marxian theory of permanent revolution that Trotsky developed further   after 1905,  under the conditions of the new epoch,  is essentially a dialectical materialist theory of  a world historical transition beyond class society by means of the world socialist revolution- a transition inaugurated in 1917. The Bukharinite-Stalinist «theory»(?) of «socialism» completed  «in a single country» is the bureaucratic denial of  such a  world transition- and of any transiton. It is the ideology of bureaucratic  paralysis and a  dogma of immobility.

Capitalist restoration in the post-Soviet space, after the tragic chaos under Yeltsin, came into conflict and, particularly now, it  collides with the explosion of the globalized contradictions of the decayed world capitalism and its  imperialist war drive. No way out, no future under a senile, dying capitalism!

Marx was not a soothsayer or an astrologist; he hates , as he said, to prepare recipes for the kitchens of the future. But this statement was a polemical attack against abstract utopianism, as Ernst Bloch explained, not a rejection of a concrete Utopia, realizing itself on Earth and in the universe. Communism, not as a sum total of  bureaucratically managed nationalizations under a State-Leviathan, but as the overcoming of alienated labor, of the classes and of the State form, the end of alienated life,  is the deepest demand, expectation, and dream for liberation of all processes of Life.

Lenin, perhaps the most realist of all Bolshevik revolutionaries, quoting, in What is to be done? the poem by Nekrasov,  insisted: We have to dream. To dream the future, to think the future, to act for the future. Karl Marx, first  and above all, belongs to the future.

Savas Michael Matsas is the General Secretary of EEK (Workers’ Revolutionary Party) and a writer in newspaper Nea Prooptiki (New Perspective), and one of the founders of the Christian Rakovsky Balkan Socialist Center and RedMed web network.     

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