What Did Marx Know and When Did He Know It? Capitalism’s Dirty Little Secret...
When we think of Karl Marx, we think of socialism, communism, revolution, and all things anathema to capitalism. Marxism is discredited and Marx can't solve the problems of the postmodern world, but perhaps reacquainting ourselves with his ideas can help us understand how we got into this dire predicament – and how to dig ourselves out.
Marx famously wrote, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." We seldom if ever connect Marx with the problems of overpopulation or pollution or a presentiment of something even more insidious than class struggles – namely, global warming.
History has conspired to marginalize Marx precisely when we need him most. Why?
First, his ideas were appropriated by Lenin and Stalin to justify the totalitarian system they created. Second, "Communism" reified as the Soviet Union and its Stalinist clones failed spectacularly, while market-based economies – "capitalism" – prospered and eventually won the Cold War.
Third, to the victors go the spoils. The prime movers of corporate capitalism – robber barons that go by such high-sounding names as venture capitalists, media moguls, investment bankers, fund managers – turned the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War into a crusade against "socialism" and "big government", promote a greed-is-good ideology, and label everything that they don't like as "class warfare".
Surprisingly, Marx came close to anticipating industrial capitalism's Achilles' heel – namely environmental depredation, carbon emissions, and global warming:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation…. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Fast forward to the present. On this day, a New York Times headline screams "Japan Backs Off From Emissions Targets, Citing Fukushima Disaster." Another paper runs an op-ed piece proclaiming "Iran Afflicted with Dust Storms, Growing Deserts". The author is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joel Brinkley. The premise: "Iran is, quite literally, blowing away."
It turns out, Iran's aquifers are drying up, desertification is spreading across the land, only 16 percent of what remains is arable, "massive dust storms" afflict 23 of Iran's 31 provinces. Astonishingly, "at least 80,000 people die from strangling dust and other pollutants annually," according to Iran's own Ministry of Health.
Nor is this the first time it's been reported. In August, 2013, Barbara Slavin, Washington correspondent for Al Monitor filed this story:
TEHRAN, Iran — As temperatures soared above 105 degrees Fahrenheit during one of the hottest summers here in recent memory, no snow was visible atop the mountains ringing Tehran and no water flowed down the narrow channels along main streets (known as jubes in Farsi) that a year ago were still full of fresh mountain runoff. A furry brown haze obscured the skyline, irritating eyes and tickling throats.
While most press attention has focused on the inauguration of a new Iranian president, the nuclear crisis and the impact of Western economic sanctions, global warming and a deteriorating environment loom as large if not larger as a threat to the well-being of Iran’s 75 million people.
We seldom read about this Iran crisis. For obvious reasons the corporate-owned mass media in this country chose to downplay or totally ignore it. It's always about the threat Iran's nuclear program ostensibly poses. Nor is Iran the only symptom of what's happening. Typhoon Haiyan, the second-deadliest typhoon ever to hit the Philippines, dwarfed Hurricane Katrina in size.
And then there is the ecological calamity called China. Photojournalist Sean Gallagher has documented the alarming environmental changes occurring in a country that's home to 1.3 billion people in a new e-book. Temperatures on the Tibetan plateau are rising faster than anywhere else on earth. India is facing a similar environmental catastrophe, as is much of Africa, while Iran is by no means the only desiccated country in the Middle East.
The environmental crisis is not localized; it's a crisis on a planetary scale, and one that's intertwined with global capitalism. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing when Marx condemned what he called "monopoly capitalism" – a system that looks more-and-more like today's corporate capitalism – to the dustbin of history. He was right: Unbounded capitalism does contain the seeds of its own destruction.
But Marx did not fully comprehend the mechanisms by which it would happen or what form(s) the crisis would assume. He focused on the socio-economic consequences of capitalism at a time when the world's population was roughly 15 percent of today's, when there were automobiles, oil wells, and coal fired power plants did not exist.
How could Marx have imagined that modern economies – from housing and highways to forestry, farming, water rights, power generation, and transportation – would be so profoundly affected by the environmental costs associated with capitalism?
The Communist Manifesto begins with a sentence that foreshadowed one of the world-shaping events of the 20th century – the October Revolution: "A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism". Marx theorized that, "The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers."
Marx was wrong about one big thing: he put too much faith in the masses and failed to see how easily they (we) can be bought off. Materialism informed his theory of the past, but he never reckoned with the rampant materialism of the present, never imagined an age of mass consumption so pervasive. So here's the question:
If corporate elites have no incentive to curb capitalism and every incentive to grab a bigger and bigger share of the world's wealth, and if the "working class" of the world, now numbering over 7 billion, can be placated with credit cards and Walmarts, what chance do we have?
Was he paranoiac or prophetic? You be the judge.