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Ear to the Ground

Karl Marx Is More Relevant Than Ever

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Posted on Jan 25, 2013
ms.akr (CC BY 2.0)

“For many in my generation, the ideological underpinnings of capitalism have been undermined,” writes Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara at The Guardian. “That a higher percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 have a more favorable opinion of socialism than capitalism… signals that the cold war era conflation of socialism with Stalinism no longer holds sway.”

It used to be capitalism that sold us visions of the future, Sunkara writes. The 1939 World’s Fair promised “nylon, air conditioning and fluorescent lamps” and “middle-class leisure and abundance.” Early in the postwar period, this vision was becoming a reality for a large number of Americans.

“Capitalism thrived and, though uneven, progress was made by American workers,” he writes. “With pressure from below, the state was wielded by reformers, not smashed, and class compromise, not just class struggle, fostered economic growth and shared prosperity previously unimaginable.”

But no longer. The failure of representative democracy to survive its union with an increasingly unregulated capitalism revealed the incompatability between one, a means for organizing an economy, and the other, a method for distributing and administering social power. “An emergent neoliberalism” staged a long, successful offensive against the working class.

“There were pitched battles waged in defense of the welfare state, but our era has largely been one of deradicalization and political acquiescence,” Sunkara contends. “Since then, real wages have stagnated, debt soared, and the prospects for a new generation, still wedded to a vision of the old social-democratic compact, are bleak.”

The collapse of banking in 2008 proved that the situation has gotten only worse. The recession “shattered those dreams” and “capital, free of threats from below, grew decadent, wild and speculative,” he notes.

No figure from the past or present is more associated with the critique of capitalism than Karl Marx. Sunkara argues that the students of Marx working in universities today have gained “a measure of mainstream exposure.” Young people introduced to the German economist’s ideas lack the association of socialism with totalitarianism that previous generations picked up during the Cold War. Countercultural notions have always found an active if small group among youth, and the popularity of radical left-wing magazines like Jacobin among young academics, journalists and activists in places like New York City suggest the appeal of Marxism is here to stay in a society that is visibly crumbling under the failure of prevailing systems of economic organization.

And those youths and their elder radical mentors have more than complaints and criticism, Sunkara observes. They have ideas “about the reduction of working time, the decommodification of labor, and the ways in which advances in production can make life better, not more miserable.”

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

Bhaskar Sunkara at The Guardian:

This is where what’s evolving, however awkwardly, into the 21st-century socialist intellectualism shows its strengths: a willingness to present a vision for the future, something deeper than mere critique. But intellectual shifts don’t mean much by themselves.

A survey of the political landscape in America, despite Occupy’s emergence in 2011, is bleak. The labor movement has shown some signs of life, especially among public sector workers combating austerity, but these are at best rearguard, defensive struggles. Unionization rates continue to decline, and apathy, not revolutionary fervor, reigns.

Marxism in America needs to be more than an intellectual tool for mainstream commentators befuddled by our changing world. It needs to be a political tool to change that world. Spoken, not just written, for mass consumption, peddling a vision of leisure, abundance, and democracy even more real than what the capitalism’s prophets offered in 1939. A socialist Disneyland: inspiration after the “end of history”.

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