In Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, a 19th century rubber-baron obsessively drives an army of poverty-stricken Brazilians to haul a steamboat over a mountain in the Andes in order to grab the land rights to an unclaimed region in the upper reaches of the Amazon where 14 million rubber trees are located. When it’s done he plans to build an opera house and bring his idol Caruso to perform at its opening. Les Blank made a documentary – called The Burden of Dreams - about Herzog’s equally insane determination to complete the film.
Herzog’s story is a metaphor, of course – of the hubris at the core of capitalism’s insistence that nature can be wrestled into submission, and that the planet is a limitless source of commodities that can be conjured into products that fuel ever-expanding demand and economic growth.
But, I think there’s another burden that we all carry – at least those of us who fear where all this is heading, and who bought a little of what Karl Marx had set out on his stall when we were sifting the market for political certainties in our youth. It’s this: decade after decade the exploitation, inequalities and injustice persist, yet we continue to dream that change will come. The madness of global capitalism is a burden, but so, too, is the dream that remains unrequited.
This is all by way of a preamble to drawing attention to three articles that each, in their different ways, examine aspects of the burden. In an excellent article in the current issue of the London Review of Books, Marx at 193, John Lanchester ponders what Marx would have made of the world today, and makes some interesting observations on what he got right – as well as identifying the ways in which capitalism has evolved that Marx did not foresee.
Lanchester begins by quoting a few choice passages from The Communist Manifesto, which Marx wrote with Engels in 1848, and which have a resounding pertinence to 21st century capitalism:
Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.
Capitalism has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.
Capitalism cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the means of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the capitalist epoch from all earlier ones. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.
In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.
Commercial crises put on trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire capitalist society. In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed.
‘It’s hard not to conclude’, says Lanchester, ‘that Marx was extraordinarily prescient. He really did have the most astonishing insight into the nature and trajectory and direction of capitalism’.
Lanchester admits to fiddling things a bit: Marx didn’t use the word ‘capitalism’ in these instances – for an important philosophical reason. To do so would have implied that capitalism was one of a number of competing possible systems – and Marx didn’t believe that. He didn’t think it was possible to move past capitalism without a fundamental overturning of the existing social, political and philosophical order. And, as Lanchester observes, he was right: no alternative has developed. ‘Economics as a discipline has in effect become the study of capitalism’.
But Marx could not have predicted how capitalism would spawn so many different variations on the main theme:
Scandinavian welfare capitalism is very different from the state-controlled capitalism of China, which is in turn almost wholly different from the free-market, sauve-qui-peut [every man for himself] capitalism of the United States, which is again different from the nationalistic and heavily socialised capitalism of France and so on..
But there is something common to all these varieties, a characteristic that Lanchester crisply pins down in one brilliant paragraph:
We have at the moment this monstrous hybrid, state capitalism – a term which used to be a favourite of the Socialist Workers Party in describing the Soviet Union, and which only a few weeks ago was on the cover of the Economist to describe the current economic condition of most of the world. This is a parody of economic order, in which the general public bears all the risks and the financial sector takes all the rewards – an extraordinarily pure form of what used to be called ‘socialism for the rich’. But ‘socialism for the rich’ was supposed to be a joke. The truth is that it is now genuinely the way the global economy is working.
Moreover, Lanchester continues, this system of ‘socialism for the rich’ has alarming implications for democracy:
The financial system in its current condition poses an existential threat to Western democracy far exceeding any terrorist threat. No democracy has ever been destabilised by terrorism, but if the cashpoints stopped giving out money, it would be an event on a scale that would put the currently constituted democratic states at risk of collapse. And yet governments act as if there is very little they can do about it. They have the legal power to conscript us and send us to war, but they can’t address any fundamentals of the economic order. So it looks very much as if Marx’s omission of the word ‘capitalism’, because he foresaw no alternative within the existing social order, was an instance of his crystal ball functioning with particularly high resolution.
The third and fourth sentences there seem hugely pertinent on the morning that The Guardian leads with the story that in the last three years Amazon has sold UK citizens more than £7.6bn-worth of goods without attracting any corporation tax on the profits. As The Guardian observes, those sales have all been taken from high street stores in the UK: in Marx’s language, just one example of the ‘constant revolutionising of production’ and the process by which ‘old-established national industries … are daily being destroyed’.
In a lengthy article, Lanchester probes which features of contemporary global capitalism fit Marx’s predictions, and which he might have been staggered to observe, could he be here today. One passage certainly staggered me: I did not know that Foxconn, the company that manufactures, amongst a multitude of gizmos, Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad, has a huge factory (one among many) that employs 230,000 people. Think of that: 230,000 people. That’s more than half the population of Liverpool!
Marx foresaw the development of a proletariat who did most of the world’s work and a bourgeoisie who in effect owned the fruits of their labour.Lanchester puts this into a 21st century context:
The fact of the proletariat being in the developing world, in effect shoved out of sight of the Western bourgeoisie, does nothing to disprove that picture – an ‘external proletariat’, it’s sometimes called. Take as a case study of this process the world’s most valuable company, which at the moment is Apple. Apple’s last quarter was the most profitable of any company in history: it made $13 billion in profits on $46 billion in sales. Its bestselling products are made at factories owned by the Chinese company Foxconn. (Foxconn makes the Amazon Kindle, the Microsoft Xbox, the Sony PS3, and hundreds of other products with other companies’ names on the front – it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that it makes every electronic device in the world.) The company’s starting pay is $2 an hour, the workers live in dormitories of six or eight beds for which they are charged rent of $16 a month, their factory in Chengdu, where the iPad is made, runs 24 hours a day, employs 120,000 people – think about that, a factory the size of Exeter – and isn’t even Foxconn’s biggest plant: that’s in Shenzhen and employs 230,000 people, who work 12 hours a day, six days a week.
So far so good as far as Marxist prediction goes. But, as Lanchester wryly observes:
…there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat. There’s nothing even close. The proletariat is queuing to get into Foxconn, not to organise strikes there…
Lanchester suggests that this is because in the modern world our selves are far more fragmented than Marx’s class analysis allowed for:
Marx … talked about people, indeed classes, as being divided into workers and owners of the means of production, and he made some allowance for the fact that we are ‘bearers’ of these roles, different aspects of which might be in play at different times, with the result that a proletarian may find himself competing against other proletarians even though their class interests are aligned. The fact is that in the modern world our selves are far more fragmented and contradictory than that. Many workers have pensions invested in companies whose route to profit lies in cutting to a minimum the number of workers they employ; one of the things that led to the credit crunch was pension funds’ search for higher stable returns to pay the pension liabilities of future generations of retiring workers, so that in very many cases we had a situation in which people lost their jobs because of losses incurred in the attempt to provide future security for the same workers.
Lanchester concludes by noting that there was one fundamental thing – critical in terms of the crisis facing the planet today – which Marx got wrong. His philosophy was predicated on the belief that the resources of the natural world were there to be exploited by man – whether organised under capitalism or communism:
What Marx doesn’t allow for is the fact that nature’s resources are finite. He knows that there is no such thing as nature unshaped by our assumptions, but he doesn’t share our contemporary awareness that nature can run out. This is the kind of thing which is sometimes called ironic, but is closer to tragedy, and at its heart is the fact that the productive, expansionist, resource-consuming power of capitalism is so great that it is not sustainable at a planetary level. The whole world wants to have a First World bourgeois lifestyle, and the whole world can see what that looks like by glancing at a television set, but the world can’t have it, because we will burn through its resources before we get there. Capitalism’s greatest crisis is upon us, and it is predicated on the unavoidable fact that nature is finite.
Will capitalism succeed in evolving into some new form that deflects the seemingly inevitable crisis of global warming, or do we need some entirely different social and economic order? The irony for Lanchester is that this new order might be quite like the one Marx imagined, even if the route to reaching it is not what he predicted.
When Marx said that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction he wasn’t talking about climate change or resource wars. If we feel a natural gloom and despondency at the prospect of the difficulties ahead, we should also take comfort in the fact of our imaginative adaptability and the ingenuity which has brought us so far so fast – so far, so fast, that we now need to slow down, and don’t quite know how. As Marx wrote, towards the end of the first volume of Capital, ‘man is distinguished from all other animals by the limitless and flexible nature of his needs.’ Limitless needs we see all around us and they’ve brought us to where we are, but we’re going to have to work on the flexible part.
While Lanchester’s view is a widescreen one, Aditya Chakrabortty, in Why do bankers get to decide who pays for the mess Europe is in?, in The Guardian, zooms in on part of the detail. In a revealing piece, he describes how Charles Dallara and Josef Ackermann, two of the most senior bankers in the world, have played a key role in the euro negotiations that imposed strict terms on Greece to avoid default. ,
Chakrabortty’s article reveals the hidden power that subverts democracy. Dallara served in the Treasury under Ronald Reagan, before moving on to Wall Street, while Ackermann is chief executive of Deutsche Bank. But their presence at the negotiations was as representatives of the International Institute for Finance. Chakrabortty continues:
The IIF is a lobby group for 450 of the biggest banks in the world, with members including Barclays, RBS and Lloyds. Dallara and Ackermann and their colleagues were present throughout those euro summits, and enjoyed rare and astounding access to European heads of state and other policy-makers. EU and IMF officials consulted the bankers on how much Greece should pay, Europe’s commissioner for economic affairs Olli Rehn shared conference calls with them. […]
Across Greece, there were massive, repeated protests about the enormous spending cuts that citizens would suffer by paying off Goldman Sachs and the rest. And there was a growing movement in Greece and Portugal and France, among other countries, questioning the legitimacy of some of these loans.
None of these voters, none of these opinions got even a fraction of the consideration, let alone the face time, that was extended to Dallara and Ackermann. …These were summits settling how much misery would be imposed on the Greek people – and no trade unions or civil society groups got a say in them. “The only key players in those meetings were European governments and the bankers,
Chakrabortty’s conclusion is devastating:
So the bankers whose excesses helped land Europe in this mess then get to sit round the big EU table, like any other government, and decide who should pay for it. And the answer, unsurprisingly, is: not them. The bigger question is: why finance has been granted such power? In a forthcoming paper entitled Deep Stall, the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change gives one compelling reason: because so many countries across Europe are, through both their public and private sectors, so dependent on financiers in other countries for credit….The tale of the IIF and how it got such a powerful say on the fate of ordinary Greeks is really a chapter in a much bigger story of how governments across the western world got swallowed up by their finance industries.
Finally, James Meek, in a polemic entitled Human Revenue Stream posted on the London Review of Books blog makes some pertinent points about whose interests are really served by the increasing pace of privatisation of public services:
The privatisations are joining up. First it was gas. Then telecoms, oil, electricity, public housing, water, the railways, the airports. There are moves afoot to obliterate the concept of the council house; NHS hospitals are to be privately run, built and managed; now David Cameron wants to get private companies and foreign governments to ‘invest’ in Britain’s roads. What does it all mean? The episodic character of privatisation – one sector being sold, then a pause, then another – has hidden a meta-privatisation that’s passed the halfway point. The essential public good that Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now Cameron sell is not power stations, or trains, or hospitals. It’s the public itself. It’s us.
What Meek means by that last statement is that the commodity that makes utilities such as water and roads and airports valuable to an investor, is that we have no choice but to use them:
We have no choice but to pay the price the tollkeepers charge. We are a human revenue stream; we are being made tenants in our own land, defined by the string of private fees we pay to exist here.
This process is not obvious because the supposed benefits of privatisation are sold in a ‘hypnotically familiar’ way.
First, the denigration of the existing service, as if a universally accepted truth is being voiced: the schools/hospitals/roads are crumbling/failing/ second-class. Then, the rejection of government responsibility: we’ve no money/bureaucrats are incompetent. Finally, the solution: private investment.
So investment comes, and ‘things get shinier'; old sewers and power stations are replaced. If these private companies weren’t doing it, surely we’d need to pay higher taxes instead? Meek puts his finger on something that should be obvious:
The truth is that we already do pay higher taxes. They just aren’t called taxes. Our water supply system is being upgraded because of a huge water tax increase. But it isn’t called that. It’s called ‘the water bill’. Water bills have gone up by nearly twice as much as inflation since privatisation. We pay a rail tax: it’s called ‘fare increases’. We pay an energy tax in the form of higher electricity bills, and so on.
And so global capitalism continues on its path of unrestrained growth, draining down the planet’s finite resources, whilst at the same time hollowing out public service and democratic processes. Meanwhile people struggle onwards bearing the burden of their dreams.
I stood upon the platform
And waited for the train
The first stop was redemption
And the whistle called my name
I stood among the faithful
And raised my banner high
I held my breath with wonder
In the cold October night
They showed me on the TV
Above the ivy and the brick
My face glowed with salvation
But the light was playing tricks
And in the tomb like silence
I walked with my head down
Another broken spirit
In a broken-hearted town
God help us all
God help us all
God help us all
God help us all, we’re sufferin’
God help us all, we’re lost
God help us all, we’re wanderin’
With no future and no hope
God help us all, we’re sick
Of cryin’ all these tears
God help us all
‘Cause we are all that we feared
- ‘God help us all’, Tom Morello