A recent post from Joe Weisenthal, one of my favourite voices from the business press, is too good not to share. A monumental moment has arrived, which threatens to change the face of economics forever: capitalists have started reading Marx. If this isn’t a sign of chaos to come, I don’t know what is. Are we now going to see “Hot Marxist Stock Tips” alongside the market advice now dispensed by Peak Oil “experts”? Or is this simply a sign of some very frightened bankers?

Everyone’s got an opinion on Marx. Most are horrifically uninformed, including many “Marxists”. For those that have read some of his work, most have only read The Communist Manifesto – more of a pamphlet than anything else. Capital is very different – dense and analytical, and very few people I know have made it through. Despite all this, as the great academic anti-hero of the last century, it’s nearly impossible to find a university where he isn’t talked about extensively in a very broad range of subjects, from sociology to literature.

What did Marx actually say? I certainly can’t do it justice. Nothing I’ve ever come across compares to Prof. David Harvey’s online course Reading Marx’s Capital, though it’s quite a commitment time-wise. The arguments he put forward here, near the end of his life, are probably the best and most thorough description of the failures of capitalism ever written. Using classical economists like Smith and Ricardo as his starting point, he investigated ideas like value, money and price. Unlike those writers of the previous generation, though, Marx was not simply articulating the philosophy of a new era (the shift from feudalism to capitalism). By the time of Marx, who wrote Capital a century after the French and American revolutions, the consequences of this new system were becoming clear – slums, sweatshops and a new kind of class structure. In this system, as Marx described, work was bought as a commodity from desperate sellers for much less than it was worth, and the difference between that ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ allowed capitalists to turn a hefty profit at the worker’s expense, which of course would mean that the worker stayed poor and had to continue working.

What was written in the Manifesto itself contained fairly little analysis, but on prediction which has come to define him ever since: the end of capitalism. I may not be the biggest fan of historical determinism, but it’s a little chilling how well old Karl predicted the unfolding of events a century after his own death. This prediction is based on a couple factors which could be seen growing by the 1870s but haven’t really come to dominate until the 1970s – corporate globalization, the intensification of consolidation and a broad ‘squeeze’ on profits. As he wrote, when no more avenues for expansion exist, and only one or a few mega-corporations remain, the system will fall either as a result of it’s own contradictions or because the few remaining centres of power become easy targets for a revolution of everybody else. This would be the beginning of the next phase of economic evolution, which he called communism but actually wrote fairly little about (and even less that was clear or consistent).

With all of the discussion about money, debt and economics right now, there’s a desperate need for a counterbalance to the pseudo-libertarian nonsense of Ron Paul and others. Every day I read more scathing condemnations of debt, patents, banks, markets and (especially) the dreaded Federal Reserve. Try as I might, I can’t disagree – it’s essential to question all of these things right now. But rather than constructing elaborate conspiracy theories to explain how this is all connected, let’s look at what they actually have in common: they’re all forms of capital. From your landlord to your bank to your boss – and there’s no secret society needed to explain why they’re in control or how they do it. So why is everyone so afraid to say it?

There is no doubt that there’s a lot the world today could learn from Marx’s actual writings, rather than superficial readings of them. I’ll be the first to admit that he’s not a prophet and there are many others who are at least as relevant. The anarchists of this era were just as involved in worker’s movements, and had no problem predicting exactly where a society centred around Marx’s ideas would lead. We should be dusting off all these old books and more. Before we continue our inane quest for “new ideas”, we should at least be sure we understand old ones.

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