Who Is This Man?

Yes, it’s the bogey man!! Here to terrify you for another year! It’s…Karl…Marx!!

Well, nobody seems too afraid of him these days. David Brooks, the man I love to hate, remarked in a recent column of his, “…can you believe that Marxism was the dominant intellectual framework in American universities fifteen years ago?” Once again, I must ask the man, “What planet are you from?” Does he think that there was then, or now, a single economics department in the USA that would be reasonably described as Marxist? History departments? Noooo, I don’t think so. Politics departments? Perhaps there were a good number that could have been described as very liberal or left leaning, but Marxist??! God forbid, they may have had Marxists on their staff, probably the way some institutions now have a token liberal. No doubt there were many literature departments that were heavily influenced by trendy Continental deconstructionism, but Marxist? I rather doubt Marx, Lenin, or Stalin would have had much truck with Derida, Foucault, and Baudrillard. Probably would have sent them off to the Gulag, Lenin and Stalin that is. Marx would simply have derided them as absurd.

Yes, Marx is one of those critics of capitalism that neo-cons and hard-core rightists love to have around because they think he’s a perfect example of why they’re right (and RIGHT). After all, he was WRONG, wasn’t he? Alas, I wonder if these people ever read him. I also wonder whether they have read their hero Adam Smith too, but that’s another story.

Well, Karl had his lapses into utopian speculation, he predicted the future and was wrong in many respects. He didn’t live to see the USSR or Maoist China, and it’s hard to imagine he would have been pleased for long with them, but you never know. Maybe he died in time. On the other hand, if you read what he had to say about capitalism, you see he understood it in an intimate way that only a lover could. Yes, he was entrhalled, and apalled with capitalism – he thought it couldn’t last, had done it’s turn on the world stage and would be gone. In that respect, like most thinkers who go out on a limb to construct a ‘system’ that infallibly predicts the future (think of Hegel ‘proving’ that there could only be seven planets in the solar system…Ooops!) he was dead wrong. But read what he wrote about the history and development of capitalism and you will learn the true story of our era’s birth instead of the pseudo-intellectual mythologies peddled in economic textbooks and editorial pages. He did the research, he read the primary sources, he knew his stuff. Not only that, but he had a wicked sense of humor!

A prime example of Marx’s acuity is his discussion of primitive accumulation. (Adam Smith called it prior accumulation.) As we all know, it takes money to make money, which is why the rich tend to get richer, or at least to stay rich. Well, the same was true of the economy as a whole when it was shifting from a feudal agricultural one to a commercial-mercantile economy. Where did the money come from to make those investments to start businesses? Where did the elite get the hard cash? All their damn wealth was tied up in land!

If only, they said to themselves, if only we could get more open land to raise sheep and sell the wool, to apply modern agricultural techniques on a large scale, we could be rolling in dough! But their land was tied down by all sorts of obligations – they supported their feudal retainers – peasants had RIGHTS to use their land in return for dying in their armies, building their houses and the like. They got a brilliant idea – they would evict the common people from the land and make it their own. They would fence it in, and raise sheep and get rich. The would get the government to make it legal. As Marx wrote:

“…The parliamentary form of the robbery is of the Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property…”

Now, that’s calling a spade a spade. I ask you, is there not a lesson for our times in that little quotation? Think Enron. And this…

” …the birth of [Modern Industry] is heralded by a great slaughter of the innocents. Like the royal navy, the factories were recruited by means of the press gang..”

Think Walmart, and illegal immigrants. Not a press gang, no, but not exactly a simple and free labor market either.

If you want to get a sense of the staggering drama and brutality of the rise of the modern industrial economy, you could do worse than to dip into Das Kapital.

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