This piece, from 2015, is a good one to mark the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. His analysis of history, and where it appeared that we were going, was remarkable in many ways, mostly in how badly it was misinterpreted. As we move ahead to a market driven economy that is remarkably distinct from an industrial economy, an understanding of Marx (along with Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and Milton Friedman) seems more essential every day – assuming it’s done properly, that is.
Imagine for a moment that you live in the most fair and equitable economy you can dream up. There are some very specific things that most people in the developed world, especially Americans, would think would be a part of this.
There would be upward mobility, where family circumstances do not determine the kids’ future. People could find their own way according to their own talents and choices as to what makes a good life. Money would rarely limit dreams, as a free-flowing capital market would provide funding for good ideas at reasonable rates. Most would own their own homes and have control over their own destiny. Workers would own the company they work for, banking their retirement at a reasonable age on the place that they helped build. Basics like food and access to health care would not be expensive.
Such a place is the embodiment of pieces of both the Democratic and Republican parties in odd turns. This place of the imagination has also been pretty close to the perfect state envisioned by Karl Marx, although it may be descending into an oligarchy (which I prefer to call “gangster state”).
The world rarely understands the work of Karl Marx in a way that makes sense. His work was taken over by radicals roughly 150 years ago and morphed into something even Marx could not relate to – at the end of his life he famously said “The last thing on this earth I would want to be called is a Marxist”. 100 years ago the perverted form of his work was crystallized into a “Socialist Republic” – Communism as we came to know it. It was a brutal dictatorship that ran nearly the opposite of Marx’s vision.
I like to joke that the world is divided into those who think Marx was always right and those who think he was always wrong, when in fact he had an amazing ability to be half right about everything. For the first person to take on his subject, however, half right ain’t bad.
What Marx laid out in “Capital” was a new way of looking at human history. The struggles of history were not about the nobility of kings but the way material goods and land were distributed among people. It was all about the stuff – who had it, how it was created, and how it could be taken away. The lack of the basic scratch to survive started revolutions and was the primary threat to the ancient order that stood two centuries ago.
Two things should stand out right away. The first is that this is the prevailing view of all history among even very “conservative” people right now. The second is that when you avoid big “Marxist” terms like “dialectical materialism” the real meat of this analysis starts to sound pretty obvious.
In this Marx’s view of history, it seemed clear that where he stood at the early end of early industrialization was not a place that could possibly last forever. The skies that separated monarchs from their supposed divine charge were thickened with black smoke that separated the two as clearly as night and dim day. That’s how Marx came to see history as progressing from where he was into something else – a classless society where workers owned companies and basic needs were taken care of.
That wasn’t realized in the Soviet Union. It came true much more clearly in Employee Stock Ownership Plans, 401ks, and a host of programs that make up the social safety net of a developed nation. We are far more “Marxist” today than anyone who ever made that claim.
This may sound academic, but there are interesting features of this Marxist world in which we live that seem hard to explain. The first is that of the six largest economies (by currency), #1 Euroland, #2 USofA, #4 Japan and #6 UK are struggling under the weight of government systems that appear to be based on the free market but are in fact tilted towards socialized risk for the financial industry. The ones that are doing well? #3 China and #5 Brasil, both of which are much more overtly “socialist” (though I would not bet on hard-core China too heavily in the near future).
But if you want to find a European nation that is doing pretty well, look to Sweden – often a bulwark of Social Democracy and scorned by lovers of the free market everywhere.
There is a lesson here. As we think about the Next Economy and how we can shape it, the struggles of people to obtain basic freedom, especially freedom from want and desperation, very much defines our world. But that world is not contained easily in a narrow mythology defined two centuries ago. That world also defined something that we came to think of as our enemy, even as we worked to achieve what was truly at the heart of it.
Revolution? An awakening of the Romantic spirit? It’s been there all along. And, in odd ways, we were doing pretty well before we became horribly distracted – in different ways than other people became distracted, but whatever. Let’s try to keep our eyes on what’s important, shall we?