Marx Rises Again
APRIL 19, 2014
IN the season of resurrection, it’s fitting that he’s with us once again — bearded, prophetic, moralistic, promising to exalt the humble and cast down the mighty from their thrones.
Yes, that’s right: Karl Marx is back from the dead.
Not on a Soviet-style scale, mercifully, and not with the kind of near-scriptural authority that many Marxists once invested in him. But Marxist ideas are having an intellectual moment, and attention must be paid.
As Timothy Shenk writes in a searching essay for The Nation, there are two pillars to the current Marxist revival. One is the clutch of young intellectuals Shenk dubs the “Millennial Marxists,” whose experience of the financial crisis inspired a new look at Old Karl’s critique of capitalism. The M.M.’s have Occupy Wall Street as a failed-but-interesting political example; they have new-ish journals (Jacobin, The New Inquiry, n + 1) where they can experiment and argue; they are beginning to produce books, two of which Shenk reviews and praises.
What they lack, however, is a synthesis, a story, of the kind that Marx himself offered. This is where the other pillar rises — Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a sweeping interpretation of modern economic trends recently translated from the French, and the one book this year that everyone in my profession will be required to pretend to have diligently read.
Piketty himself is a social democrat who abjures the Marxist label. But as his title suggests, he is out to rehabilitate and recast one of Marx’s key ideas: that so-called “free markets,” by their nature, tend to enrich the owners of capital at the expense of people who own less of it.
This idea seemed to be disproved in the 20th century, by the emergence of a prosperous, non-revolutionary working class. But Piketty argues that those developments were transitory, made possible mostly by the massive destruction of inherited capital during the long era of world war.
Absent another such disruption, he expects a world in which the returns to capital permanently outstrip — as they have recently — the returns to labor, and inequality rises far beyond even today’s levels. Combine this trend with slowing growth, and we face a future like the 19th-century past, in which vast inherited fortunes bestride the landscape while the middle class fractures, weakens, shrinks.
Piketty’s dark vision relies, in part, on economic models I am unqualified to assess. But it also relies on straightforward analysis of recent trends in Western economies, and here a little doubt-raising is in order.
In particular, as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship has pointed out, Piketty’s data seems to understate the income gains enjoyed by most Americans over the last two generations. These gains have not been as impressive as during the post-World War II years, but they do exist: For now, even as the rich have gotten much, much richer, the 99 percent have shared in growing prosperity in real, measurable ways.
Winship’s point raises the possibility that even if Piketty’s broad projections are correct, the future he envisions might be much more stable and sustainable than many on the left tend to assume. Even if the income and wealth distributions look more Victorian, that is, the 99 percent may still be doing well enough to be wary of any political movement that seems too radical, too utopian, too inclined to rock the boat.
This possibility might help explain why the far left remains, for now, politically weak even as it enjoys a miniature intellectual renaissance. And it might hint at a reason that so much populist energy, in both the United States and Europe, has come from the right instead — from movements like the Tea Party, Britain’s UKIP, France’s National Front and others that incorporate some Piketty-esque arguments (attacks on crony capitalism; critiques of globalization) but foreground cultural anxieties instead.
The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, this trend suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.
And somewhere in this pattern, perhaps, lies the beginnings of a more ideologically complicated critique of modern capitalism — one that draws on cultural critics like Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch rather than just looking to material concerns, and considers the possibility that our system’s greatest problem might not be the fact that it lets the rich claim more money than everyone else. Rather, it might be that both capitalism and the welfare state tend to weaken forms of solidarity that give meaning to life for many people, while offering nothing but money in their place.
Which is to say that while the Marxist revival is interesting enough, to become more relevant it needs to become a little more ... reactionary.