Does today’s capitalism invite an “I told you so” from Marx?
After all, he brought together many of the earlier fragments of criticisms and denunciations of capitalism by people victimized or betrayed by it. He produced the first comprehensive critique of the whole system, thereby spearheading a critical tradition that has grown and deepened ever since. Marx’s work has influenced not only the socialist movements that honor, study, and try to apply his writings, but also pretty nearly everything else in our modern day history.
May 5 is the 202nd anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. This May 5, 2020, capitalism experiences its 3rd crash in this new, young century - a crash already rivaling the worst (1930s) in capitalism’s history. This crash emerged from and also worsens capitalism’s already extreme inequality. Once again capitalism’s stark irrationality screams at us. It cannot meet urgent social needs by hiring unemployed workers (who seek jobs) to work with available tools, equipment and raw materials (gathering rust and dust). Profit stands in the way and it is what determines economic activity, capitalism’s “bottom line.” Nothing exposes the unjust absurdity of capitalism more sharply than the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because there was profit in it, capitalists developed global supply chains. But that profit did not count the costs of global supply chains in terms of human suffering, pollution of global waterways, and the transmission of dangerous diseases. Because there was no profit in it, US corporations neither produced nor stockpiled the tests, masks, gloves, beds, etc. needed to manage dangerous disease transmission. That profit-based calculation left the US vulnerable to disease, death, and economic disaster.
Marx developed a systematic critique of capitalism as a system driven by profit. Its insights were profound; many are relevant today. We need all the valuable insights we can get to move to a better system than capitalism, or capitalism’s decline will take us all down with it.
Of course, Marx’s work need not and should not become some holy writ; it has its faults and limits. But ignoring Marx’s and Marxism’s insights serves only to hobble our efforts to solve capitalism’s intolerable flaws and failures in 2020.
Capitalism’s defenders have worked since 1945 to keep those insights from the distribution and attention they deserve. We should have stopped that long ago; it is urgent that we use this anniversary to stop it now.
Richard D. Wolff