A TOP NEWS magazine from Germany has a lit a fire by asking a provocative question in its New Year edition: Was Marx Right After All?
As you can imagine, this Der Spiegel issue is triggering a large amount of discussion.
But a look at the article and the responses to it makes something clear: the report is not actually about Marx, or socialism or communism.
It’s really just a simple admission: Marx said capitalism would destroy itself, and there’s mounting evidence that he may have been right. The report could just have easily have quoted Joseph Schumpeter, a pro-capitalist economist who began his famous book with a question: “Can capitalism survive? No. I don’t think it can.”
FUTURE OF HUMANITY
The world is in a mess, with capital markets in a spin, unchecked militarization running rampant, a general feeling that things are collapsing around us, and worst of all, a growing realization that the climate crisis may even wipe out human civilization.
“Until recently, there would have been one solution to all these problems: the market would take care of itself. But who still seriously believes that today?” the article asks.
It quotes Ray Dalio, a pro-China hedge fund manager who believes “capitalism urgently needs to be fundamentally reformed. Otherwise it will perish, and deservedly so.”
CAPITAL F FREEDOMS
What are the issues here? Capitalism is inexorably tied up with the western interpretation of Freedom with a capital F: the capitalist fat cats must have Freedom to run the economy, the people must have Freedom to change leaders every few years, and the capitalist press must have Freedom to say anything it likes any time it likes. Yet all three strands of this religious belief are suffering, if not failing, simultaneously.
Capitalism has given us a world in which endless blind pursuit of development is literally causing a global climate disaster, risking the end of modern civilisation as we know it.
Western liberal democracy has put power into the hands of a succession of disappointing leaders who escalate conflicts and divert ever more resources into the hands of weapons makers, creating a need for global wars. And when an obsessively military economy is the sole super-power, smaller groups, from the UK to Europe to Japan to Australia, have to literally pay for protection. That’s bad news for their taxpayers, and even worse news for people the sole superpower doesn’t like – sorry, China.
As for the free press, excessive permissiveness about what can be published has led the world to be flooded with untrusted mainstream media, destabilizing fake news, harmful pornography, and social media that makes people feel angry and depressed.
LOOKING FOR FIXES
The Der Spiegel article flirts with ways to fix the main problems, but readers are not finding them very inspiring, judging by the reactions.
One suggestion is to introduce more Keynesianism, which is a system in which the government actively interferes with the market to adjust the components of spending. But respondents say that that has been tried repeatedly.
It also looks at “degrowth” – the abandonment of the religious adherence to capitalism and its pillars. Such a move would provide more flexibility. The trouble is, anyone who suggests adjustment of these factors is denounced as a socialist, communist, anarchist or authoritarian.
HOPE AMONG YOUTH
But perhaps that won’t always be the case. An intriguing pointer to the future is that the next generation does not have the religious hatred of non-capitalist systems that their parents have. The Der Spiegel article quotes a poll which says 49 percent of 18 to 29 year olds in the US now have a positive opinion of socialism. Socialist Bernie Sanders is seen as a shining light of integrity among a host of widely disliked US political leaders. The Asian model of “consultative” democracy (think Singapore, Hong Kong, mainland China) seems to produce happier, safer societies than western liberal democracy.
What is stopping the west moving in that direction? Part of the problem is labels. If you remove words such as “socialism” or “communism” and simply look at successful examples of mixed systems of governance used by Singapore or Finland or China or Denmark, the perception is positive.
The obvious answer, of course, would be to look for models that work and copy them: the “best practice” system. But the German magazine won’t recommend that – because it may lead them to look at China, which would be politically problematic, given the country’s loyalty to the United States. China is far from perfect, but it has a stellar record on poverty alleviation, and is the world leader in solar energy, reforestation, wind power, electric vehicles, and so on. China’s media and social media have an immense list of faults, and can be infuriating to use – but for all that, they are not creating anger and depression.
Could we see a change of mindset in which China is not demonized but seen as a society the world can learn from?
Perhaps. As people return to travelling in 2023 and 2024, they’ll be able to see for themselves that the accusation that China has “killed” Hong Kong and unfairly imprisoned “millions” in Xinjiang is false.
WEST OWNS THE IDEAS
But equally possible is that such a change won’t happen while the west is the economic center of the world. The rich own the property but also the concepts that are used to structure societies. As Karl Marx said: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”
If East Asia is permitted to rise peacefully, it will become the economic center of a multipolar world, and that obstacle will be removed. Western governments and media are opposed to that idea. But it may well be that their citizens are not. Ultimately, if we believe that humans everywhere prefer peace to war, there may be room for optimism.
Image at the top shows cover of New Year edition of Der Spiegel.