Marx was right. But before I tell you why, I want to clear up a few things. Because, student journalists have been writing hack-jobs on the righteousness of very specific, and often pointless, technical radical doctrines for a long long time — but I want to posit that this article is different.
I’m not calling for radical change or the overthrow of the system, and I’m not clarifying or beautifying a radical text. I’m saying that the core essence of what Marx says — i.e. ‘historical materialism’ — has been vindicated. The result is a disorientating and alienating system —one that often clashes with, and asks questions of, human nature.
To be clear — I don’t mean communism was right, or that ‘Marxism’ is an ideology that needs to triumph over its near competitors. What I mean, simply, is that that bearded prophet of mid-19th century Germany, Karl Marx, had some interesting things to say, and they’re still relevant — nay, potentially enlightening.
So what did Marx say? Well, the broad point Marx made is that around 1650, give or take a hundred years, there was an important shift. The world made a collective decision to embrace capitalism, or modernity, whatever you want to call it. And once it did, so Marx argued, an important fact about our collective existence became determined.
Our societies, states and companies would either produce growth, or they would collapse. And if they collapsed, they would be eaten up by other societies, states or companies. The result: a system in free-fall or autopilot — a society destined to deliver more growth, regardless of whether we wanted it.
The changes that came with that growth — the ability to buy more goods, but also spiritual disillusionment and structural economic inequities — were, and continue to be, predictable or, at the very least, determined. And so, Marx argued, the core thrust of the modern story was now out of our hands. Instead of us humans making decisions about what we wanted to be, ‘Capital’, a semi-spiritual force, which existed nowhere yet everywhere, would now direct history forward.
Importantly, unpredictable things would still happen, ideological experiments would still crop up, fail or succeed. But when they did fail, or did succeed, they would ultimately do so because of the whims not of humans, but of impersonal ‘Capital’.
And, weirdly, if you look at the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s pretty clear he’s right. Here, the system collapsed, and it collapsed because it couldn’t deal with the ruthless efficiency of the demands made by ‘Capital’. Capitalist systems, with their market mechanisms, clever incentives – their inbuilt Darwinian instincts — would first trounce, then buy out the alternatives. So, it was to be in Soviet Russia. So, it seems, it also was with China — which looks about as capitalist as a Communist state can believably be. And so, Marx predicts, it will be with any other competitor. Simply put, in a historical twist par excellence, the fall of the Soviet Union is the triumph of Marxism.
The same goes for the rhetoric surrounding growth. It’s relentless. Without it, Britain’s a wreck, powerless, weak — and we vote out parties that don’t provide it. We come to expect the ledger to slowly shift upwards — for our lives to feel better than they did five years ago, and for it to be an outrage if this is not the case. And so, it has come to be that we are trapped by our own demands of ourselves — as the iron laws of historical determinism keep us from real self-determination.
The more reasonable among you might ask, why does this matter? Why should we care if some now-dead bearded journo said some things that are relevant to us today.
Well, it matters because a lot, in fact an increasing number, of the challenges our societies currently face, stem from the inevitable march of ‘Capital’. The result is that, though we may be able to skirt around, or shape the character of, a good number of these challenges, we can’t stop their ultimate cause – constant growth.
It may be interesting to ponder questions like ‘is AI safe?’, ‘will the global ecosystem survive the increasing demands placed upon it?’, ‘is developing increasingly powerful conventional weapons a good idea?’, ‘is social media good for me?’, and ‘how do we deal with populism?’, but, increasingly, it is only interesting, and not important.
Growth will develop AI, even if we don’t want it. Scarier, bigger, more destructive weapons will be created — because bigger states with access to better developed technologies feel they need them. And personally, you will still use TikTok, or Instagram, or something like it – because growth has made them so efficiently addictive. Marx describes a world where the contours aren’t shaped by common sense, or rational, deep thought, but the demands of a system. That is the world we live in – and that’s pretty frightening.
Illustration: Lauren White