Did Marx get it right?

The economic theories of Karl Marx have seen a resurgence following the dramatic crisis for capitalism associated with the banking disaster of 2008. He predicted that the stresses inherent in capitalism would inevitably lead to its collapse. Growing economic and social inequalities were unavoidable, he claimed, and the time would come when the owners of capital could no longer be able to preserve the system from which they profited. The institutions and legal framework they had shaped in their own interests would be overthrown, by force if necessary, and they would have to surrender their power to the workers who created their wealth in the first place.

The economic and political world that Marx inhabited is dramatically different from ours, but the notion that inequality in power and wealth tends to increase under market capitalism, resulting in widespread resentment and anger, rings true. The rejection of a system that is perceived as deeply unfair and a feeling of powerlessness in the face of existing social structures and institutions lie behind many recent political developments, including the decision by the UK to leave Europe, and the popularity of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. There are many voices expressing alienation and disaffection. The Occupy movement, Ken Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blake and Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism are recent examples. Internationally, the growth of violent radicalism within Islam and the rise of far right political parties in many Western countries are signs of the same feeling.

Historically, minority groups or foreigners have often borne the brunt of this popular dissatisfaction and anger. On occasion, such victimization has been the result of political manipulation and propaganda. The Jews have been a popular choice over the centuries, but it might be any national, religious, ethnic or social group that can be portrayed as alien or threatening.  Where such feelings are mutual between nations, war can be the outcome. The outbreak of the First World War is an example. The causes were complex and many, but within Britain – and perhaps within other European powers – a growing tide of anger and resentment in the years leading up to the war threatened social stability. Civil war seemed likely in Ireland, industrial unrest was growing increasingly bitter and the campaign for votes for women was becoming violent. The war put an end to all that as Germany became the common enemy.

Some might argue that war is a last ditch device by the powerful to protect themselves from the internal threats they face. There may be some truth in that, but the central point is that once a society is in the grip of growing and widespread feelings of injustice and powerlessness, violent upheaval becomes increasingly likely, in the form of civil strife, revolution or war. The regular political processes are unable to contain the passions that have been aroused. The trigger that tips things over the edge may well be unplanned and relatively insignificant in itself.

Today we are living in times of considerable unease and uncertainty. We are increasingly aware of the dangers of climate change, population growth, mass migration and terrorism. It is widely felt that the unequal distribution of wealth and income is unjust, that our political system is corrupt and that power resides in the hands of an unaccountable elite. Existing political processes seem inadequate to cope with these challenges as democracy struggles with globalization and individuals and local communities feel forgotten. The threat of violent confrontation hangs in the air, domestically and internationally. Friction between the major global military powers seems as likely to lead to confrontation as at any time since the height of the Cold War – some have argued that the dangers are even greater.

So are we heading for a Marxist style revolution, and if so, what form might it take? Are tensions inevitably leading towards war? Can our present institutions and democracy hold things together? Is it possible that the radical changes required can be achieved in a peaceful, democratic way? What is the likelihood of another banking collapse, and if it occurs what might the consequences be?

Answers are impossible to give with any certainty. We may face considerable social unrest, and perhaps even violent conflict. In the face of such a possibility we have a responsibility to recognize and take a stand against prejudice and discrimination where we see it, and to protect the outsider from blame they don’t deserve. We have a responsibility to pursue the peaceful resolution of differences and to support those who a striving to do so politically. We have a responsibility to be hopeful that whatever happens, good is more powerful than evil, and that even if evil prevails for a while, no good thing is worthless or lost. And we have a responsibility to do our best to preserve our own personal integrity and generosity, whatever is going on around us.

Peter Shepherd (October 2016)