Friday, July 1, 2011

Why Marx was wrong

Last week I powered up my Kindle and digested Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton, partly because I generally find him entertaining as well as ethically concerned, and also because there still lurks within me a soft spot for Marxism, recalling the period on American college campuses in the Vietnam period when the New Left functioned as an important arena for political discussion about social change.

The book proceeds by countering a series of hypothetical arguments proposed by fictive opponents, the straw man technique, whereby non-existent critics are reduced to silence. This is a literary form often employed in academic articles: “Although scholars have argued that such-and-such is the case, my own brilliant research now proves decisively that it is not,” whereby of course the scholars in question are never cited by name or their arguments critically analyzed.

Now there are many reasonable ways to criticize Marxist thinking — take for example Brad DeLong’s Understanding Marx lecture notes — and one cogent reason why Eagleton’s book is doomed to failure is that it doesn’t consider more than a few carefully hand-chosen, severely overwrought ones. They do not include my own view for example that the Marxian analysis of social class structure is inapplicable to post-industrial capitalism.

There was a time when you could easily identify industrial workers simply from their appearance. When I studied in Germany in the early 1960’s, they wore caps and blue-colored jackets and leather shoes that were always unpolished and they carried with them leather brief-cases containing lunch and a bottle of beer. In England workers used to look like this:

Where did all the workers go?  Well, many went into the service sector due to technological advances in industrial production, and, in an astonishing betrayal of class consciousness, many of those left behind decided they were consumers and no longer workers, so in this country they consequently determined during the Reagan era that their economic interests were better served  by voting Republican.

The proletariat simply isn’t around any more. The industrial workers of America now live and work in Mexico and China, and if they ever manage to organize, it will be against those governments and not ours.

(There were two quite interesting PBS Newshour reports last night. One showed a government crackdown on workers’ wage protests in one Chinese city, while at the Party Congress in Beijing the bosses delivered the customary annual diatribe against internal corruption. This is a well-established strategy: deflect popular attention from genuine issues through institutional self-criticism, which no one could do anything about even if the will existed.)

Just as capitalism eliminated uppity San Francisco longshoremen through technological advancement—something incidentally Harry Bridges would never have disapproved of—globalization has done away with American workers as a class of potential troublemakers.

Thus the current collapse of the American labor movement, graphically demonstrated by its inability to react decisively to the events this year in Wisconsin, or the impotence of the mine workers to change the dangerous conditions in the Massey mines in West Virginia, either before or after last year’s catastrophe.

Unlike the 1930’s, when similar economic conditions prevailed, the current recession has amazingly inspired no other organized populist response except on behalf of  the right. Given the obscene circumstance that capitalist managers who created the mess continue to make out like bandits while millions suffer, this seems quite a surprise.

But it’s hardly a question of Gramscian hegemony, where the lower classes are hypnotized into advocating ruling class interests, not if you view the right in America as a coalition of the rich, their political mouthpieces, a broad base of uneducated dreamers hoping that tax-cuts and a return to the old ways will lead to a lost American utopia, or Christian fundamentalist phantasts wishing for a not-yet-revealed one.

But it is evidence of the disappearance of the workers as a transformative social force, which is why Marx was wrong.

photo "Leaving Manchester, 1938" from The Edwardians.


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