Thomas Piketty, whose new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is enjoying maximum exposure across the globe at the moment, is being described in much of the mainstream media as a Marxist or an 'anti-capitalist' (the headline below is from the recent Mayday edition of the London Evening Standard). Not only does this description mischaracterize Piketty's arguments, it also traduces Marxism. Piketty is not a Marxist and has no interest in ending the exploitation and alienation of capitalism; he is a liberal concerned with economic inequality who proposes higher rates of taxation for the wealthy - an entirely respectable and mainstream position. He even told a New York Times interviewer that 'private property and market institutions' are necessary for 'economic efficiency and personal freedom' - a conviction he seems to have acquired during a visit to Romania in the immediate post-Soviet era. Given that such facts are easily discoverable and quite widely known, one can only marvel at the journalistic disingenuity on display here.
The book itself, meanwhile, rebukes Marxist economic analysis for its supposedly mistaken reliance on the theory of the falling rate of profit ('an historical prediction that has turned out to be quite wrong', he claims, quite wrongly). The book also articulates a fairly mainstream centre-left politics, arguing, for example, that inequality is a threat to 'democratic societies' and the 'values of social justice on which they are based' (a question for Piketty here: if 'democratic societies' really are based on 'values of social justice', why do they systematically generate the kind of inequality Piketty documents?). None of this is to say that the book is worthless; but it is hardly 'anti-capitalist'. And so to avoid further confusion, here is a short list of some other world historical figures who are not enemies of the profit system: Barack Obama, Tony Benn and Kim Kardashian. You're welcome.
A decade ago, the comedian Mark Steel wrote and delivered a series of television lectures about important Western writers, philosophers, scientists and political figures for the Open University on the BBC. The episode on Karl Marx is one of the most hilarious television programmes I've ever watched. The BBC's recent OU series Masters of Money (BBC), presented by Auntie's economics editor Stephanie Flanders, was also funny, but not in a good way.
Flanders seemed to present Marx as an under-consumptionist who argued that capitalism encounters problems when workers aren't paid enough to buy the products they make; but that was about as far as the argument went. It was also disappointing that, while the production team had managed to score interviews with several well-known and interesting figures such as Tariq Ali, Slavoj Žižek and David Harvey, the contributions of these commentators were reduced to soundbites far too short to provide insight into Marx's ideas about economics. Other interviewees reduced Marx's economic ideas to insipid observations about the unfairness of capitalism. It was hard not to chuckle when Chicago professor Raghuram Rajan earnestly noted that Marx had been right to observe that 'income inequality can be a source of tremendous tensions'. Could the firebrand whom Flanders described in her introduction as 'the most dangerous man in Europe' really have said anything so bland?
If you really want authoritative views on Marxian economics, why not interview the likes of Paul Mattick Junior, who has used Marxist theory to predict - and, retrospectively, to explain - the current economic crisis? Or Andrew Kliman, whose work challenges under-consumptionist accounts of capitalist profitability which over-emphasize the role of consumer demand in sustaining capital accumulation. Who knows, Kliman might have thrown in a discussion of the Tendential Fall in the Profit Rate - a theory whose merits one would expect a programme about Marx's economic theories to address.
But Flanders didn't seem very interested in Marx's analysis of capitalism; nor did she have much time for his vision of a classless society ('We still don't care what [Marx] said about communism' , she blithely commented). In fact, it appeared that one of the programme's main aims was to discredit Marxism by identifying it with Stalinism and 'the horrors of a violent police state'. This is hardly an original slur, but that didn't stop Flanders from beginning and ending her documentary with it. And when right-wing rent-a-mouth Peter Hitchens popped up to offer the view - presumably included as a sop to the BBC's requirement for ideological 'balance' - that complaining about capitalism is like complaining about the weather, the hatchet job on Marx's reputation seemed complete.
Now that the nationalistic frenzy of the Olympics is over, 'public service' television is reverting to a more open assault on the working class. Channel 4, not for the first time, is indulging in some shameless class propaganda tonight in the form of Tricks of the Dole Cheats, which is scheduled for broadcast at 8pm. For those who'd rather take action than get angry, there is a Facebook page supplying more information about the production, as well as some useful counter-arguments and some suggestions as to what people can do to protest.
Postscript: As many people have commented in the social media, the programme broadcast by Channel 4 focused less on the 'dole cheats' themselves - raising the question of why the programme was given such a stigmatising title - than on the ways in which slack procedures at Job Centres allow claimants to 'get away with' (as the presenter Morland Sanders put it) not looking for work. Despite this slightly unexpected focus, the programme nevertheless managed to demonise benefit claimants as well as Job Centre staff (many of whom feel uneasy that the government is trying to prevent them from helping those in need). As the void blog argues, the programme also appeared to be 'laying the ground for privatisation of benefit services, with a handful of recruitment sector spivs brought in to show how much better they would be at the job'.
Christian Garland's email response to Channel 4 makes very clear why such programming is unacceptable, setting the programme in the context of the government's current drive to cut the cost of benefits paid to the poor and disabled:
Dear Channel 4,
I write to you to add my voice to the many people unhappy with the Dispatches programme Tricks of the Dole Cheats, aired at 20:00 on Monday evening (13/08/12). To start with, the salacious, eye-grabbing title, one that the Daily Mail or Express - or for that matter, The Sun, would be proud of, this was clearly aimed at generating maximum tabloid hysteria, and of course, viewing figures, for a shabby apology for 'factual' programming, which even by the (very) low standard set by Channel 4, scraped a new all-time low.
Whilst the quality of Channel 4's factual output - as for all other kinds sadly - has been in steep and serious decline for the best part of 20 years now, what is especially dubious about this 30 minute tabloid hack job, was the extremely unwelcome contribution it made to the Tory-led coalition's ongoing assault on anyone unfortunate enough to have to have dealings with the punitive benefits system, as well as the media's propagandist line in the demonisation of them.
The programme's title was also extremely misleading, since the expected 'tricks' of 'dole cheats' - seriously, was that copy and pasted from The Sun online, and slightly revised to avoid copyright breaches? - were not forthcoming at all. It would have been contemptable enough if this had been another straightforward attack on the unemployed and other claimants, but the programme still had much to offer in that regard, even though the title was completely different from the implied content.
Morland Sanders, the presenter, who in the best tradition of those who speak from where they don't know - or have any idea - took the miserable reality of claiming JSA, and the requirement that claimants record what they have 'been doing' to find employment every two weeks when signing on, as 'getting away with it'. As someone who has had that distinctly tepid pleasure in the past on two seperate occasions, I can speak from experience, and tell you that were a claimant not to undertake this (yes, largely pointless) fortnightly task, they would have their JSA frozen forthwith. To quote and counter Morland Sanders here, a JSA claimant can most certainly not '[...] write on their jobseeker's agreement, "I'm not going to apply for this job, and I'd rather stay on benefits". So, to answer Morland Sanders' speculative assertion, 'It does make me think, that if you wanted to actively avoid work and stay on benefits, you could.' No, you couldn't.
The requirement is part of the punitive workfare regime that has existed in some form or another in the UK, since 1984 - a sickly apt year. The Tory coalition has accelerated and intensified the punitive welfare-to-work regime of putting claimants under constant pressure and always shifting the burden for unemployment back onto the shoulders of the individual: social problems, societal problems, become individual failings, and a matter of 'not trying hard enough' and 'not applying yourself'. Recently of course, Grayling and Duncan-Smith have excelled themselves in trying to introduce the 'work programme' in which claimants are mandated to work unpaid or have their derisory JSA withdrawn - the kind of choice offered by the DWP being thus: you don't have one. The sick irony of all of this 'getting people back to work' is that there is none to go to.
The programme made much of the cost to the taxpayer of those working whilst claiming benefits - £226 million; but offshore tax avoidance costs in the region of £15-25 billion, so it is curious Channel 4 should choose to focus on the 0.8 % of benefit expenditure lost to fraud, and not the ongoing efforts of the super-rich and corporations to avoid paying tax in the UK, a figure which dwarfs the relatively tiny one spent on benefit fraud, and at a time when Gideon Osborne repeats the necessity of a further £18 billion of cuts to what little remains of the already inadequate social safety net. Once again, 99.2% of benefit expenditure was not fraudulent, and it is remarkable that Channel 4 should prefer to focus on those at the bottom of the social pyramid, something it has a tawdry recent history of indulging in, what others have called 'poverty porn' - Benefit Busters, The Fairy Jobmother, etc. There is, after all, only so long dinner parties can be enlivened by chatter of house prices and getting the kids into a good school, so this sort of vicarious titiliation offers something to avoid that sort of repetition; however, it does nothing at all for Channel 4's reputation.
Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. 258pp. 9780300169430
Paul Mattick, Business As Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism. London: Reaktion Books, 2011. 126pp. 9781861898012
In 2008, as journalists and pundits struggled to account for the return of a crisis that was not – following political promises of ‘the end of boom and bust’ – supposed to reoccur, copies of Capital and The Communist Manifesto reportedly flew off bookshop shelves. Even some mainstream media commentators began to wonder if Marx might have been right all along. But such doubts – coming from commentators not accustomed to harbouring them – were often as ephemeral as they were grudging, and lay readers seeking robust but accessible understandings of Marxist thought have been ill-served in recent years. This year, however, saw the publication of two highly accessible books – written by, respectively, a veteran Marxist literary critic and one of the US’s most clear-sighted Marxist polymaths – which argue for the continuing and deepening relevance of Marx’s ideas for our times.
Why Marx Was Right is a myth-busting text. With characteristic erudition, wit and verve, Eagleton addresses the commonplace charges that Marxism represents a utopian, soulless, outdated, unduly statist, unnecessarily violent or economically determinist school of thought. Eagleton gamely takes on and demolishes these criticisms one by one, showing Marx to be a flexible, pragmatic and undogmatic thinker and arguing for the eminently human – even humanist – character of Marx’s political outlook. Importantly, too, he distances Marxism from the terrorisitic regimes of the twentieth century that claimed to operate in its name. Maoism and Stalinism, he notes, were ‘botched, bloody experiments which made the very idea of socialism stink in the nostrils of those elsewhere in the world who had most to benefit from it’ (p.15).
The criticisms of Marxism addressed in the book are the ones typically levelled by Marx’s right-wing critics (while they are not mentioned by name, the latter would surely include philosophical anti-Marxists such as John Gray) – and rightly so, since these are the criticisms that Eagleton’s intended audience of lay readers is most likely to have encountered. Those seeking some discussion of the more sophisticated interventions into Marxist theory made by anarchists, autonomists and left communists, however, will be disappointed. Indeed, while it would be impossible for a short polemic such as Eagleton’s to deal even cursorily with every political school of thought influenced by Marxism, the version of Marxism defended here is broadly Trotskyist and other Marxist traditions are given somewhat short shrift. Eagleton dismisses as ‘ultra left’, for example, those Marxists who ‘look to revolution rather than to parliamentary democracy and social reform’ (p.190) and the point is followed by a joking footnote which mocks the supposed absurdity of left-communist positions: ‘In the militant 1970s, [...] the true purists or ultraleftists [...] were those who were able to return an unequivocal No to the question ‘Would you call the bourgeois fire brigade’, (p.247). This dismissiveness towards ultra left positions is unfortunate, since elsewhere in the book Eagleton is at pains to emphasize that matters to which he devotes extended discussion – such as the desirability of ‘market socialism’ – have been the subject of vigorous debate among Marxists of various persuasions. It is also indicative of Eagleton’s tendency to emphasize the humanistic and reformist, rather than the revolutionary aspects of Marx’s thought.
Indeed, while Eagleton is certainly not neglectful of history – he notes, for example, that the composition of the working class has changed significantly since Marx’s time – he does tend to present the reformism of nineteenth-century socialism as more or less adequate in the current era. But capitalism today is not the same as that which confronted workers in Marx’s time. The nineteenth century, for all its horrors, was a period of rising wages and capitalist expansion, in which unions served as more or less effective organs of reform. The revolutionary wave of the early twentieth century, by contrast, indicated that the communist transformation of society was possible. The state, meanwhile, has grown enormously in size and scope since that period, absorbing the unions, which have in turn played a mostly reactionary role by supporting the world wars and dividing struggling workers by nation, sector and job role – however militant their rank and file members may be. However one describes such historical shifts (as a movement from formal to real subsumption, from ascendance to decadence, etc.), their political ramifications cannot be ignored. The qualitative differences between the capitalism of Marx’s day and ours have changed the rules of the game, placing revolution, rather than mere reform, on the political agenda and transforming the nature of working class organs of struggle. Admittedly, it is difficult to take full account of a century and a half of capitalist development in a short polemic such as Eagleton’s; nevertheless, Why Marx Was Right does rather under-estimate the dramatic shift in the nature of capitalism since the beginning of the twentieth century and its implications for proletarian political strategy.
On a more prosaic level, some readers may find the relentlessly puckish literary style of Why Marx Was Right irritating. Eagleton, as always, is drole; but the Eagletonian trope of illustrating abstract concepts with vividly concrete images and eccentric analogies – to which the author gives full rein – is often more grating than illuminating. ‘To judge socialism by its results in one desperately isolated country’, he writes of the Soviet Union under Stalin, ‘would be like drawing conclusions about the human race from a study of psychopaths in Kalamazoo’ (p.17). To call such writing over-wrought would be an understatement. Despite these reservations, however, Why Marx Was Right provides lively defence of Marxism that will prove particularly useful to those encountering Marx's ideas for the first time, providing reassurance that Marx did not hold all, or even any, of the views attributed to him by his detractors.
Since Eagleton is more concerned with defending Marxism from attack than advocating it as a means of critique, a better – albeit less stirring – title for his book might be Why Marx Wasn’t Wrong. Eagleton’s actual title, in fact, rather better describes the stance of Paul Mattick Junior’s Business As Usual. At just 126 pages including footnotes, Mattick’s book offers a Marxist explanation of capitalist crisis for a lay readership in a highly condensed format. Beginning with an analysis of thelongue durée of capitalist business cycles, Mattick shows, in characteristically precise and jargon-free prose, how Marxian economic theory offers resources for explaining the latest crisis of the system in its historical context. Mattick is well-qualified for this task: just as his father, the council communist Paul Mattick Senior, had used Marxian economics to predict the ultimate failure of post-war welfare Keynsianism in his 1962 book Marx and Keynes, Mattick’s Marxist method has enabled him correctly to predict the ways in which the economic crisis would unfold since 2007. As Mattick stresses, such predictional accuracy is not a matter of intelligence or insight, but is rather ‘a matter of knowing how to think about what is going on’ (p.9). Indeed, continuing the theme of one of Mattick’s earlier books, Social Knowledge, Marxism is posited here as the best guide to acquiring knowledge in the social sciences and one of this book’s clearest messages – recalling his father’s argument in Marx and Keynes – has to do with the bankruptcy of mainstream economic analysis.
In the first part of the book, Mattick addresses some common misconceptions, arguing that economic crises are not, as is often claimed, caused by ‘exogenous shocks’ to the system, but are internal to the dynamics of capitalism. But the central problem with mainstream accounts of the recent crisis, Mattick argues, lies in their mistaken assumption that the point of capitalism is to create goods in order to satisfy consumer demand; Mattick argues that capitalists aim rather to create profit. Thus, in response to Keynesian commentators such as Paul Krugman, whose recommendations for beating the recession include massive stimulus spending and job creation schemes, Mattick bluntly points out that ‘capitalism is a system not for providing “employment” as an abstract goal, but for employing people who produce profits’ (p.79). And therein lies the problem. Following the work of Robert Brenner, Mattick points to the more or less steady decline since the mid-1970s in levels of capital investment and profitability – a decline that would have led to a crisis much earlier had its effects not been staved off by enormous levels of private, public and government debt.
While emphasizing the cyclical nature of economic downturn, Mattick notes that the present crisis is unfolding in a radically different context to that of earlier depressions. The state-capitalist solution of large-scale government spending that was implemented by leaders from Roosevelt to Hitler in response to the depression of the 1930s is virtually impossible to implement today (and in any case, as Mattick points out, it was actually the second world war, not these Keyenesian measures, that finally enabled capitalism to climb out of depression). Keynesians, argues Mattick, have never faced up to the long-term consequences of government borrowing, which has now spiralled out of control – in the US it has risen from $16 billion in 1930 to $12.5 trillion today – raising the prospect of default for many countries. Governments are therefore caught between the rock of allowing the crisis to ‘play out’, imposing austerity and trying to contain the ensuing social unrest and the hard place of stimulus spending, which will lead to disastrously high levels of government debt.
An additional problem, Mattick notes, is that capitalism today is integrated as never before in its history, so that any solutions that capitalism invents to remedy its own problems must be international in nature (p.101) – a virtual impossibility in a world of competing nation states. World war has, of course, traditionally offered one such global solution for capitalism; but as Mattick notes, although the world today is wracked by war, mobilising an (as yet) undefeated working class for a world war would prove difficult for the ruling class (although, in a world full of nuclear weapons, one wonders if troop mobilisation would even be necessary). Moreover, even if the economy does temporarily recover, this will only exascerbate the environmental destruction and depletion of natural resources that already threaten to render the planet uninhabitable for human life.
In the book’s final pages, Mattick is upbeat about the decline of the ‘traditional’ left of ‘parties, unions and radical sects’ (p.109), arguing that the solution to the social problems created by capitalism will have to come through the activity and invention of ordinary people. This might begin with people simply taking and using housing, food and other goods, organising production and distribution to meet their own needs (pp.106-7). In this, Mattick sounds a refreshingly pragmatic and undogmatic note and, unlike Eagleton, shows an awareness that organs such as the unions no longer serve the progressive function they once did. Inevitably, however, some Marxists will feel that Mattick, by seeming to present the overcoming of capitalist social relations as a process of communisation that bypasses the need for proletarian dictatorship, underestimates the importance of working-class political organisation to any post-capitalist transition.
Some will say, too, that Mattick’s account of economic crisis over-emphasizes the causal importance of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. There is a significant divergence, for example, between Mattick’s focus on profit rate and the more pluralist account of capitalist crisis given in David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital (another of the rather few accessible Marxist books about the crisis to have appeared of late). Those interested in Mattick’s critique of Harvey’s position will, however, need to look elsewhere for illumination, since Mattick focuses here primarily on his own thesis, rather than engaging in lengthy dialogues with the arguments of others. But whatever view one takes of the role of profit rates in capitalist crisis, Mattick’s book valuably locates the roots of the crisis in the nature of the capitalist system, providing a forceful counterargument to those liberal-left moralists who have sought to blame the recent crisis on ‘greedy bankers’, ‘neoliberalism’ or other manifestations of ‘excessive’ capitalism, while arguing for a return to a regulated Keynesianism. Like his father before him, Mattick argues convincingly that neither the ‘free market’ nor the Keynesian policies of the ruling class offers a way to overcome the cycle of boom and bust in an increasingly beleaguered system. Indeed, both Eagleton’s and Mattick’s books serve as accessible reminders that, as Sartre observed half a century ago in Search for a Method, we cannot ‘go beyond’ Marxism until we have transcended the circumstances which engendered it.