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' (thank heavens that we don't live in one of those, as Alfie Meadows probably wouldn't say). 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.