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That is our essence as a species.

Capitalism is fated to self-destruct, just as all previous economic systems have self-destructed. Marx was fanatically committed to finding empirical corroboration for his theory. It was a heroic attempt to show that reality aligned with theory.

Two centuries on, Karl Marx feels more revolutionary than ever

Marx had very little to say about how the business of life would be conducted in a communist society, and this turned out to be a serious problem for regimes trying to put communism into practice. He had reasons for being vague. Marx was clearer about what a communist society would not have. The state, in the form of the Party, proved to be one bourgeois concept that twentieth-century Communist regimes found impossible to transcend. Communism is not a religion; it truly is, as anti-Communists used say about it, godless. But the Party functions in the way that Feuerbach said God functions in Christianity, as a mysterious and implacable external power.

Marx did not, however, provide much guidance for how a society would operate without property or classes or a state. A good example of the problem is his criticism of the division of labor. Rather than have a single worker make one pin at a time, Smith argued, a pin factory can split the job into eighteen separate operations, starting with drawing out the wire and ending with the packaging, and increase production by a factor of thousands.

But Marx considered the division of labor one of the evils of modern life. So did Hegel. It makes workers cogs in a machine and deprives them of any connection with the product of their labor. Human beings are naturally creative and sociable.

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A system that treats them as mechanical monads is inhumane. But the question is, How would a society without a division of labor produce sufficient goods to survive? Nobody will want to rear the cattle or clean the barn ; everyone will want to be the critic. Believe me. As Marx conceded, capitalism, for all its evils, had created abundance.

Socialism’s Future May Be Its Past

He seems to have imagined that, somehow, all the features of the capitalist mode of production could be thrown aside and abundance would magically persist. In , it is harder to be dismissive. It uses data to show us the real nature of social relations and, by doing that, forces us to rethink concepts that have come to seem natural and inevitable.

One of these is the concept of the market, which is often imagined as a self-optimizing mechanism it is a mistake to interfere with, but which in fact, left to itself, continually increases inequality. Another concept, closely related, is meritocracy, which is often imagined as a guarantor of social mobility but which, Piketty argues, serves mainly to make economic winners feel virtuous.

Piketty says that for thirty years after a high rate of growth in the advanced economies was accompanied by a rise in incomes that benefitted all classes. It now appears that those thirty years were an anomaly. The Depression and the two world wars had effectively wiped out the owners of wealth, but the thirty years after rebooted the economic order.

We are approaching those levels again today. In the United States, according to the Federal Reserve, the top ten per cent of the population owns seventy-two per cent of the wealth, and the bottom fifty per cent has two per cent. About ten per cent of the national income goes to the top two hundred and forty-seven thousand adults one-thousandth of the adult population. This is not a problem restricted to the rich nations. Global wealth is also unequally distributed, and by the same ratios or worse.

It can be difficult now to appreciate the degree of immiseration in the nineteenth-century industrial economy. In one period in , the average workweek in a Manchester factory was eighty-four hours. It appears that wage stagnation is back.

Forces of Divergence

And, as wages for service-sector jobs decline in earning power, the hours in the workweek increase, because people are forced to take more than one job. The rhetoric of our time, the time of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Brexit, and popular unrest in Europe, appears to have a Marxist cast.

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How useful is Marx for understanding this bubble of ferment in the advanced economies? That they are basically all the former may turn out to be a consoling belief of the better-off, who can more easily understand why people who have suffered economic damage would be angry than why people who have nothing to complain about financially might simply want to blow the whole thing up.

Still, in the political confusion, we may feel that we are seeing something that has not been seen in countries like Britain and the United States since before people debating what Marx would call the real nature of social relations. The political earth is being somewhat scorched.

And, as politics continues to shed its traditional restraints, ugly as it is to watch, we may get a clearer understanding of what those relations are.

They may not be entirely economic. One of these is nationalism. For Marx and Engels, the working-class movement was international. But today we seem to be seeing, among the voters for Brexit, for example, a reversion to nationalism and, in the United States, what looks like a surge of nativism. Stedman Jones also argues that Marx and Engels failed to appreciate the extent to which the goal of working-class agitation in nineteenth-century Britain was not ownership of the means of production but political inclusion, being allowed to vote.

When that was achieved, unrest subsided. Voting is no longer the test of inclusion. What is happening in the rich democracies may be not so much a war between the haves and the have-nots as a war between the socially advantaged and the left-out. No one who lives in poverty would not trade that life for a better one, but what most people probably want is the life they have.

They fear losing that more than they wish for a different life, although they probably also want their children to be able to lead a different life if they choose. Of the features of modern society that exacerbate that fear and threaten that hope, the distribution of wealth may not be the most important.

Money matters to people, but status matters more, and precisely because status is something you cannot buy. Status is related to identity as much as it is to income. It is also, unfortunately, a zero-sum game. The struggles over status are socially divisive, and they can resemble class warfare. Ryan, in his book on Marx, makes an observation that Marx himself might have made. But the unequal distribution of social resources is not new.


Here, one must admit, the empirical record is patchy at best, and there appear to have been long periods of stagnation, even regression, when dysfunctional economic structures were not revolutionised. The theoretical issue is whether a plausible elaborating explanation is available to underpin Marxist functional explanations. Here there is something of a dilemma.

In the first instance it is tempting to try to mimic the elaboration given in the Darwinian story, and appeal to chance variations and survival of the fittest. Chance variation would be a matter of people trying out new types of economic relations. On this account new economic structures begin through experiment, but thrive and persist through their success in developing the productive forces. Within Darwinian theory there is no warrant for long-term predictions, for everything depends on the contingencies of particular situations. A similar heavy element of contingency would be inherited by a form of historical materialism developed by analogy with evolutionary biology.

The dilemma, then, is that the best model for developing the theory makes predictions based on the theory unsound, yet the whole point of the theory is predictive. Hence one must either look for an alternative means of producing elaborating explanation, or give up the predictive ambitions of the theory.

Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today | The New Yorker

But what is it that drives such development? Human beings have the ingenuity to apply themselves to develop means to address the scarcity they find. This on the face of it seems very reasonable. Yet there are difficulties. As Cohen himself acknowledges, societies do not always do what would be rational for an individual to do. Co-ordination problems may stand in our way, and there may be structural barriers. Furthermore, it is relatively rare for those who introduce new technologies to be motivated by the need to address scarcity. Rather, under capitalism, the profit motive is the key.

Of course it might be argued that this is the social form that the material need to address scarcity takes under capitalism. But still one may raise the question whether the need to address scarcity always has the influence that it appears to have taken on in modern times. Alternatively, it might be thought that a society may put religion or the protection of traditional ways of life ahead of economic needs.

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Such a criticism chimes with a criticism from the previous section; that the historical record may not, in fact, display the tendency to growth in the productive forces assumed by the theory. It is possible to argue, for example, that Marx did not have a general theory of history, but rather was a social scientist observing and encouraging the transformation of capitalism into communism as a singular event.

On other views Marx did have a general theory of history but it is far more flexible and less determinate than Cohen insists Miller. The issue of Marx and morality poses a conundrum.