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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les leçons toujours actuelles de Karl Marx l’oublié

by Lucien Degoy

Karl Marx and the Lessons of "Capital" Are Back

Translated Tuesday 13 January 2009, by Isabelle Métral

Whether as a philosopher, economist, and anthropologist, the author of “Capital” and the persistent relevance of his analyses are justified by the major crisis which now defies the premises of global capitalism.

« If Marx imposes himself as one of the “unsurpassable” thinkers of our time, the reason is also, and mostly, that he was the first to detect the dynamics intrinsic to capitalism. ». These are not the words of some obscure, antediluvian follower of Marx, but the pronouncement of Alain Minc, the businessman, essayist and counsellor who has the ear of the French President, in an interview recently published in Le Magazine Littéraire [1]. The review, which made so bold as to devote thirty pages to Marx’s works, wonders about what it calls « the reasons for a rebirth ».

As the British historian Eric Hobsbawn himself humorously observes, « It is the capitalists, more than the others, who are re-discovering Marx »”– like George Soros, another financier and pro-market politician who recently confided to him: « I am reading Marx just now; there are quite a few interesting things in what he said! »

That Marx, who has long been dead and buried, is now back in favour may seem paradoxical. But is it so very strange? « It is not surprising that intelligent capitalists, especially in the field of global finance, should have been impressed by Marx, », Hobsbawn observes, « since they have necessarily been more keenly aware than the others of the nature and instability of the capitalist economy in which they operated. » [2]. Naturally, these capitalists should not be expected to give up the system that crowned them and that gives them a hold on the whole of society: they are not going to become converts to socialism any time soon. That is not in their interest – far from it – they most certainly (George Soros among them) still entertain the notion that they may turn the present crisis to to their own advantage and increase their profits, since the crisis whets their appetite for speculation even as it increases the risks…

That’s the law of the system, the domination of the bourgeoisie that Marx and Engel depicted in The Communist Manifesto in 1848, long before his main work Capital (1867), as a period marked off from all previous periods by « a continuous upheaval of production », « a social system in a complete state of permanent commotion », « restlessness » and « perpetual insecurity ».

Can Marx help us see our way through the crisis?

As economist Jean-Marie Harribey observes, the fact is « that one might draw up an impressive list of publications at the service of capitalistic interests that draw upon Marx’s critique of capitalism to try and find their way through the erratic movements of their own system ». Thus, Harribey further notes, from The Financial Times to The Wall Street Journal through The Economist and the London Daily Telegraph which declared that « October 13, 2008 shall remain in history as the day when the British capitalist system admitted to having failed », commentators are forced to concede that the sacrosanct « law of the market has proved incapable of guaranteeing a sound equilibrium, stability, prosperity or equity » and that, all in all, Marx had been fairly perspicacious.

« It is urgent to re-discover his thought, which is too often reduced to a few famous quotations », insists journalist Patrice Bolton, who coordinated the Marx dossier for Le Magazine Littéraire. It is once more a recourse for decrypting a globalization « that multiplies job losses and sends inequalities between countries rocketing, as well as inequalities between social classes within each country. » Not forgetting the succession of speculative bubbles that result in the impoverishment of a growing portion of the population.

In such a context, beyond the historical differences that make it illusory to transpose the situation directly from one century to the next, Karl Marx is enjoying a second youth. But « which Marx », the review asks, is it « the economist, the sociologist, the philosopher, or the political activist »? But must we really choose? What if it was precisely the diversity of those « hats », their superimposition and connections that made for the high topicality of his perspicacious, unclassifiable works today?

Marx indeed attempted to decrypt the movement of history, the economy, production, value, capital, labour force, money, commodity, consumption, credit, social relations, class struggle, but also the exploitation, alienation, individualization, the possibility of emancipation and of transcending dominations as so many moments in a global movement, in a series of constantly evolving contradictions that make it possible to characterize precisely the singularity, the specificity of a mode of production at any particular time in human history. This approach to contradictions makes it possible to understand why global finance capital is now pushing the logic of profitability to a paroxysm, and why capitalism, as communist economist Paul Boccara [3] shows, is « exponential capitalism », a system that sets money above everything else in order to make more money to the detriment of people’s lives – an irreversible system, which cannot be expected to go back to « old time capitalism ».

In an article published by le Monde diplomatique [4], the philosopher Lucien Sève himself notes that « if the crisis broke out in the credit sphere, its devastating power had been building up in the sphere of production owing to the increasingly unequal distribution of surplus value between capital and labour ». And he goes on to remind us of Mark’s illuminating insight (in Capital, Book I) that: « All the means that are aimed at developing production are conversely as many means of domination and exploitation of the producer », or again (…) that « the accumulation of riches at one pole » has a reverse side which is « the proportional accumulation of destitution » at the other pole, from which, Sève further observes, « the premises of violent trading and banking crises will originate ».

The crisis being systemic, it can only repeat itself and get worse. That is why putting the origin of the crisis down to the excessive volatility of sophisticated financial products is of little avail. To « moralize » capitalism, to restore it to « greater transparency », as proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy, are slogans that are all just for show if the very logic of the system is left untouched, namely the dictatorship of finance, the search for maximum profit. « Faced with a system whose blatant incapacity to regulate itself has such an inordinate cost for us, our aim right now must be to transcend capitalism, and set out on the long march towards a new social organization where human beings, through novel forms of association, will all together control their own social power which has gone berserk », Lucien Sève insists. There lies yet another timely lesson still to be learned from Karl Marx, albeit out of the depths of philosophical oblivion... ______________________________________________________


[1N° 479, October 2008.

[2The interview was published by the Centre helvétique d’études marxistes(Swiss centre for Marxist studies) on Occtober 17, 2008.

[3 l’Humanité, October 16.

[4December 2008.

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