On Saturday at the Left Forum in New York City, Chris Hedges joined professors Richard Wolff and Gail Dines to discuss why Karl Marx is essential at a time when global capitalism is collapsing. These are the remarks Hedges made to open the discussion.
Karl Marx exposed the peculiar dynamics of capitalism, or what he called “the bourgeois mode of production.” He foresaw that capitalism had built within it the seeds of its own destruction. He knew that reigning ideologies—think neoliberalism—were created to serve the interests of the elites and in particular the economic elites, since “the class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production” and “the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships … the relationships which make one class the ruling one.” He saw that there would come a day when capitalism would exhaust its potential and collapse. He did not know when that day would come. Marx, as Meghnad Desai wrote, was “an astronomer of history, not an astrologer.” Marx was keenly aware of capitalism’s ability to innovate and adapt. But he also knew that capitalist expansion was not eternally sustainable. And as we witness the denouement of capitalism and the disintegration of globalism, Karl Marx is vindicated as capitalism’s most prescient and important critic.
In a preface to “The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” Marx wrote:
No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.
Therefore, mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since looking at the matter more closely, we always find that the task itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist, or are at least in the process of formation.
Socialism, in other words, would not be possible until capitalism had exhausted its potential for further development. That the end is coming is hard now to dispute, although one would be foolish to predict when. We are called to study Marx to be ready.
The final stages of capitalism, Marx wrote, would be marked by developments that are intimately familiar to most of us. Unable to expand and generate profits at past levels, the capitalist system would begin to consume the structures that sustained it. It would prey upon, in the name of austerity, the working class and the poor, driving them ever deeper into debt and poverty and diminishing the capacity of the state to serve the needs of ordinary citizens. It would, as it has, increasingly relocate jobs, including both manufacturing and professional positions, to countries with cheap pools of laborers. Industries would mechanize their workplaces. This would trigger an economic assault on not only the working class but the middle class—the bulwark of a capitalist system—that would be disguised by the imposition of massive personal debt as incomes declined or remained stagnant. Politics would in the late stages of capitalism become subordinate to economics, leading to political parties hollowed out of any real political content and abjectly subservient to the dictates and money of global capitalism.
But as Marx warned, there is a limit to an economy built on scaffolding of debt expansion. There comes a moment, Marx knew, when there would be no new markets available and no new pools of people who could take on more debt. This is what happened with the subprime mortgage crisis. Once the banks cannot conjure up new subprime borrowers, the scheme falls apart and the system crashes.
Capitalist oligarchs, meanwhile, hoard huge sums of wealth—$18 trillion stashed in overseas tax havens—exacted as tribute from those they dominate, indebt and impoverish. Capitalism would, in the end, Marx said, turn on the so-called free market, along with the values and traditions it claims to defend. It would in its final stages pillage the systems and structures that made capitalism possible. It would resort, as it caused widespread suffering, to harsher forms of repression. It would attempt in a frantic last stand to maintain its profits by looting and pillaging state institutions, contradicting its stated nature.
Marx warned that in the later stages of capitalism huge corporations would exercise a monopoly on global markets. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe,” he wrote. “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” These corporations, whether in the banking sector, the agricultural and food industries, the arms industries or the communications industries, would use their power, usually by seizing the mechanisms of state, to prevent anyone from challenging their monopoly. They would fix prices to maximize profit. They would, as they [have been doing], push through trade deals such as the TPP and CAFTA to further weaken the nation-state’s ability to impede exploitation by imposing environmental regulations or monitoring working conditions. And in the end these corporate monopolies would obliterate free market competition.
As of this week, Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland are felons, having pleaded guilty on Wednesday to criminal charges of conspiring to rig the value of the world’s currencies. According to the Justice Department, the lengthy and lucrative conspiracy enabled the banks to pad their profits without regard to fairness, the law or the public good.
The Times goes on:
The banks will pay fines totaling about $9 billion, assessed by the Justice Department as well as state, federal and foreign regulators. That seems like a sweet deal for a scam that lasted for at least five years, from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2013, during which the banks’ revenue from foreign exchange was some $85 billion.