What has precisely shaped the world as we see it in the 21st century? The prompt answer, to which even Left intellectuals subscribe, would be the collapse of Communism. How would one describe the new age? The answer is again oft-repeated. It is the age of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. Most Leftists concede that their dream of a classless society – marked by equality and free from exploitation – lies shattered as capitalism is all-powerful. In their reckoning, globalisation is a wave that has made the poor poorer. The market forces are almost the same throughout the world.
Capitalism today has to deal with more fundamental contradictions than ever before. It is time, therefore, to reflect on the philosophy of Karl Marx which is being redefined in the 21st century. The occasional crisis of capitalism, according to Marx, is inherent in the very nature of the concept. Thus, his relevance is perhaps greater today, in the era of the global village.
Indeed, Marxism is particularly relevant for an understanding of capitalism. The first parameter is Marx&’s basic formulation on economics and the technological level of production, which is at the base of the social edifice. The second is the role of the financial sector under capitalism. Yet another is the need to discard religious irrationality, superstition and fundamentalism, and give pre-eminence to science and technology. Marx grasped the nature of capitalism and realised that although capitalism has over time changed its forms, its essence remains the same. It is still a system of exploitation and wage labour for those who operate the means of production. This feature of capitalism is still unchangeable. There is little doubt that Marxism enables us to understand the nature of the capitalist crisis in different parts of the world today, including the developing countries in Asia.
Marx believed that human development requires a cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production. Real human development requires production in which people can develop their own activity i.e. socialist production organised by workers. But this implies common ownership of the means of production or what is referred to as social ownership. This is not ownership by groups of workers; rather it implies ownership by society. This involves the total production system which must cater to the needs of society. The community, as a social institution, must identity the needs that must be fulfilled. As we live in a community, we need to produce for others out of a spirit of solidarity. This is the society for which Marx had once struggled.
Marx lived in the 19th century, an era that was very, very different from the present. Any assessment of the relevance of Marx&’s ideas in the early 21st century should be discussed by excluding the outdated features. It ought to be focused on the ostensibly free and market-based society. At the beginning of the age of industrialisation in Britain, the underbelly was starkly evident – starving handloom weavers and factory workers toiling for 14 hours a day. Marx visualised the remedy in violent revolution, followed by decades of civil and international warfare, leading to a Utopian realm in which distinctions between individuals and society and between society and the State had been erased. There is no denying that the effort to implement this vision in the 20th century, admittedly under such circumstances, was quite different from that which Marx had once envisaged.
A capitalist market economy is not a self-regulatory system. There are periods of crisis, which we now refer to as recession. But the meltdown of 2008 deserves to be called a crisis in view of its severity, persistence and global impact. In Das Kapital, Marx offers explanations for the recurrence of such crises. While discussing the crisis of 1857, generally regarded as the first worldwide recession, Marx had focused on the policies of Credit Mobilier, the world&’s first investment bank. He noted that the bank&’s statutes allowed it to borrow up to 10 times its capital. It then used the funds to purchase shares or fund IPOs of trench railroad and industrial enterprises, considerably increasing their output. But in the absence of buyers for the hiked production, the bank discovered that the stocks it had bought had fallen in value, making it difficult to repay its loans. Replace Credit Mobilier with Lehman Brothers or the Anglo-Irish Bank and the French railroad and industrial firms with Nevada or Irish real estate, and we have a fair picture of the major factor behind the recent financial problems.
Capitalist countries are still based on private enterprise and this means that the owners and controllers of private industry have more power over the working class. An economically dominant bourgeoisie continues to exist and it still wields considerable influence over the institutions of the State despite the emergence of democracy. Capitalist economies are grossly unequal despite the existence of the welfare state. Poverty is endemic in certain countries. The overall significance of religion may have declined, but the family, the schools and the capitalist controlled mass media continue to brainwash the working class and prevent them from realising their true destiny.
Marx suggested in his so-called Polarisation Theory that under capitalism, production would increasingly be in the hands of large companies and that smaller units and traders would gradually be forced out of business. This analysis provides an accurate perspective of 21st century capitalism which is still marked by economic inequality and social iniquity.
From a global perspective, a class-based analysis is still relevant. Second, exploitation is still at the core of the capitalist system if we examine the practices of transnational corporations. Third, the present social structure suggests that economic power still has a disproportionate influence over the super-structure. The capitalist system has in recent times been plagued by economic crisis. Exploitation is still acute in certain parts of the world, not the least in Britain where hundreds of people still call themselves Communists and sympathise with Marxism and the wider anti-capitalist movement.
A deregulated capitalism is re-appearing. Its characteristics are certainly new, but it is assuming some of the traits of capitalism in the time of Marx. Its primary concern is to increase profit regardless of the social and environmental consequences. The methods include downward pressure, directly and indirectly, on wages as well as the capitalistic “re-commodification” of everything that was achieved through struggles in the spheres of health-care, education, retirement benefits, transport etc. The violent counter-reform policies have not resolved what is one of the worst crises in the history of this mode of production.
Nearly 135 years after his death, Marx still has a certain influence both in intellectual and practical terms. It is true that the socialist future, that he so confidently predicted, is yet to become a global reality. The early attempts to establish a socialist society have faced exceptionally difficult problems in a predominantly capitalist imperialist world. But Marx broke new ground in human thought by making a very fundamental contribution. He placed human beings and their conscious, purposive activity – human labour – at the centre of his analysis of history.
According to Marx, ceaseless development of productive forces was the constant feature of human historical development. His outstanding contribution was his thesis that every class society contained within it the seeds of its dissolution. It can be overcome by a new, higher level of human development and this process takes place through a class struggle. Marx&’s unique contribution was to identify the key class as the major historical agent in a particular society that would overthrow a prevailing class society by a new society that replaces it.
Marx&’s writings still evoke interest across the world despite speculation that his readership would dwindle after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the eclipse of Communism in East Europe. He offers no readymade solutions to the problems of capitalism. Yet his writings provide an explanation of the inner working of capitalism for good and evil. From this vantage point, Marx&’s writings can throw light on the problems of our age and the limitations of their possible solutions.