What do socialists say?
Marx central to anti-capitalism
ANTI-capitalist mobilisations in Seattle, Washington and Millau have raised the banner of revolt against a dehumanising system. The protests are based on, and have then pushed forwards, a criticism of existing society and a hope for a better future. Those who are now pitting themselves against the corporations are developing a 150 year old tradition of opposition to capitalism.
We wrestle with many of the same problems today which people tried to resolve in a much earlier period of capitalist development. They too were appalled by the human suffering, the environmental damage and the stifled existence that capitalism brought.
Today Naomi Klein, George Monbiot, Susan George and many others write about how capitalism is wrecking the world. So did Karl Marx in the 19th century. When people tear into the power of the corporations, the sham choices and the violence of the system, they are looking at the same issues which Marx wrote about.
Karl Marx's writings should be central to anti-capitalism today. He analysed capitalism soon after its birth in order to be able to destroy it and build a better world. Marx began with an analysis of alienation, the way capitalism vastly increases wealth but denies its benefits to the vast majority:
"The more the worker produces, the less he has to consume. The more values he creates, the more valueless, the more unworthy, he becomes. It is true that labour produces wonderful things for the rich-but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces, but for the worker hovels. It produces beauty, but for the worker deformity."
Work, which should be fulfilling and creative, becomes so hated that for the worker "life begins only when this activity ceases-at the table, in the public house, in bed. The worker only feels himself outside his work and in his work he feels outside himself."
Capitalism mobilises such vast energy and resources and yet delivers so little for the vast majority of the population. Even when capitalist firms create technical wonders, the social circumstances in which these developments take place often turn them into tools used against us. Capitalism is a system which, as Marx wrote, "turns every economic progress into a social calamity".
He compared its progress to "that hideous pagan idol that would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain".
The capitalists' economic power imprisons everyone. We have no control over society and so are cut off from each other, from nature and from our own humanity. It was Marx who first analysed the global spread of the system: "The need for a constantly expanding market chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe.
"It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. All old national industries have been destroyed or daily are being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries that work up raw materials drawn from the remotest zones, industries whose products are consumed not at home, but in every quarter in the globe."
Such brilliant insights bring home why Marx is so relevant today. Nobody who is in revolt against the system now can afford to ignore what Marx wrote-and neither can they say he is outdated. Whenever there is a new pulse of revolt against capitalism people find themselves rediscovering the same factors that Marx wrote about.
That is because, although the shape of capitalism changes, the central dynamic of accumulation for accumulation's sake, for profit before people, remains lethally the same.
Marx did not just condemn capitalism. He described a better way to run the world and a force which had the power to defeat capitalism. George Monbiot wrote brilliantly in the Guardian last week about the way capitalism makes a commodity of everything. But he finished with a heavy pessimism that "the walls rising around us are beginning to look impregnable".
Marx would have applauded Monbiot's analysis of commodities, but he would have argued that our side can smash the walls around us. Capitalism means "masses of labourers crowded into the factory and organised like soldiers".
But in the course of being exploited they also become central to production, central to society and capable of cutting off the flow of profit. "What the bourgeoisie produces above all is its own gravedigger, the proletariat, the modern working class."
We need Marx's understanding of capitalism. We also need his analysis of how the working class can lead the whole of humanity towards freedom.