Karl Marx @ 200: No Dear Capitalism, He’s Not Irrelevant Yet
Karl Marx would’ve turned 200 on 5 May 2018.
So what? Is there any point in remembering and reflecting on his work? Is it not a fact that Marxism has been squarely defeated by capitalism? Is it not a fact that even the Left intellectuals today are more inclined towards ‘identity’ than towards class, more concerned with ‘culture’ than with history, more convinced of ‘difference’ than of universality?
Has not history itself delivered the final verdict of Marx being no longer relevant? Were not the communist regimes horribly oppressive and are not the Marxist parties totally out of sync with the contemporary world and its issues?
To sum it up, the 21st Century can safely ignore Marx, or, at best, as a courtesy can just tip the hat and move on.
Not a Prophet
However, it will be a terribly wrong thing to do. There is hardly any point in holding Marx accountable for whatever good or bad things Lenin, Stalin, Mao and other Marxists did. He can (and has been) of course be evaluated for his own political activities, but certainly not for those of the people who came decades after him.
Also, he must not be treated as a ‘prophet’ who could not go wrong.
If we free him of the baggage which he has been forced to carry, Karl Marx’s understanding of the human nature and his insights into the nature of capitalism remain immensely relevant, and can help us learn a lot. However, this can not be a copy-paste learning. We can only expect insights, not readymade solutions.
Capitalism and the Despair of Humanity
The 20th Century was a century of hope and dreams turned into despair and nightmares. Not only communism, but many other gods failed humanity in the 20th Century. As a result, even to talk of a ‘grand narrative’ of universal significance was considered to be politically incorrect.
At the same time, the crisis of human consciousness has now reached epidemic proportions. The most successful capitalist country – the USA – is also the most welcoming to all kinds of charlatans offering ‘peace of mind’. It also has an ever expanding psychiatry industry. Most of the Americans are forced to depend on anti-depressants. Disintegration of social relations has become a precondition of ‘development’ anywhere; as we can see in our own society. Gandhi realised the crisis in his own way, and Nehru was also quite concerned with “spiritual emptiness caused by our technological civilisation” as he told RK Karanjia in 1960.
The loss of humanness of a human being – alienation from human nature – was Marx’s life-long concern. He attempted to capture the ‘essence’ of “man’s species-being” in ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’ (when he was not even thirty years of age). In these notes, he is clearly influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach, and of course by Hegel.
Marx underlines the ‘uniqueness’ of human beings. Unlike other creatures, Man is not merely an organic extension of nature, he is in nature and unlike other beings, is aware of this fact. This awareness leads to his qualitatively different relationship with nature. Marx describes this relationship as ‘inorganic, spiritual’ (his own word in the English translation).
A human being is alienated from ‘spiritual’ property when her/his ‘natural’ activity – physical and mental – is turned into a commodity for market. This process, starting with the beginning of social organisation, reaches terrifying proportions under capitalism. It “alienates man’s own body from him, as it does (his) external nature and his spiritual essence”.
Religion as an Opiate
Marx reflected on organised religion in the similar way and pointed out that it alienates the ‘spontaneous activity of human imagination’ and turns it into reflections on divine and diabolical. In simpler words, religion turns the spontaneous (Sahaj – to borrow a term from Bhakti vocabulary) sense of belonging, feeling of cosmic wonder and expansion of consciousness into an outside commodity.
“Religion is the opiate of people” – this quote from Marx is as famous as it is misunderstood. ‘Opiate’ here is a sedative, a pain-killer, which is needed under the given circumstances. It becomes clear, once you read the statement from Marx – “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opiate of the people”.
Later on, Marx abandoned using terms like ‘spiritual’; and articulated his ideas in ‘secular’ terminology, but his concern remained the same. In his magnum opus, ‘Capital’, he castigated capitalism for “degrading the worker into a fragment of man, an appendage of machine” and his labour into a “torment”; and for “transforming his lifetime into working time… alienating him from his intellectual potential”.
False Predictions or Faulty Understanding?
Many people have found proof of Marx’s “irrelevance” in the failure of his prediction of ‘progressive increase of poverty and misery of the workers under capitalism’. True,‘workers’ have prospered under capitalism in the post-Marx West. The only problem is that if you take the global economy as a whole, then people from outside ‘West’ have and are still paying horrible price for the ‘prosperity’ of workers under capitalism.
Even in countries, which are on a development fast-track, like India and China, people who are paying the price for the smartness of cities and their residents, have not vanished into thin air, they have just been banished from the attention span of the talking heads.
We know of the ‘business practices’ of corporate giants. In Walmart stores, the salespersons are not provided any chairs, they are supposed to keep standing for 8-10 hours.
Talking more generally, regular employment has given way to “contractual labour” and “contingent and temporary work-force” (‘just in time’ in management lingo). ‘Pakoda and pan economics’ is the desi version of same thinking. For amoral profit making, it is crucial to keep as many people as possible on the tenterhooks. Remember many economics experts were upset with MNREGA, as it made the ‘cheap’ labour ‘expensive’ and difficult to get.
This uncertainty leads to anxiety and anger, which is either directed towards aggressive politics or towards phoney ‘spiritualism’ and ‘psychiatry’. To recall an ironic comment from Marx, ‘criminal produces not just the crime, but also the legal system to deal with it’.
‘Spiritual’ Crisis, Capitalist Roots
Taking the world economy as a whole, Marx does not seem outdated, when he says in ‘Capital’, that, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalisation and moral degradation at the opposite pole”.
Incidentally, it was also Marx who along with his life-long friend Engels in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ (1848) had predicted capital’s inevitable march towards ‘globalisation’ and also the giant corporations becoming the real rulers of the world –democracy being replaced by ‘corporatocracy’.
Incidentally, materialism is not Hedonism (amoral, selfish rat race for comforts). Marxian materialism, in fact, is a harsh critique of amoral hedonism.
Kabir in one of his poems talks of ‘constant interaction of inside and outside’ (bhitar bahar shabad nirantar), and he was echoing the traditional Indian wisdom which rejected the trap of binary thinking. Marx does the same in his own way, within his own philosophical tradition, when he underlines that – human consciousness and material conditions act dialectically on each other.
In order to tackle the problem of ‘spiritual emptiness’ the whole system of production and distribution has to be humanised. Merely updating technology will not do. Also, the ‘crisis of soul’ can not be handled by any dose of individual self-therapy – ‘spiritual’ or ‘psychiatric’. Along with such efforts directed at ‘inside’; you have to do something in terms of justice on the issues of ‘outside’ as well.
(The writer is Contributing Editor for Hindi Quint. He can be reached @puru_ag. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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