Marx is so good because he considers the life of the wage-earner as an example of the life of a human being — what is should be, not what it is — and condemns it for its poverty. He takes the having of a life from which they can be estranged as the basis of equality among people
Marx cannot be read with profit in times of plenty. You do not feel his sting. When business is booming and the proletariat can acquire any number of unnecessary gadgets on borrowed money, Marx will sound like a spoilsport, an Old Testament prophet who has blundered into gilded Rome.
After all, it wasn’t striking and organising that got them the car and the fridge; it was letting some smart and lucky people make a lot of money, which then trickled down to those who didn’t have any (or some of them anyway) and allowed them to have what they couldn’t have, without even working for it. Why did old Marx go on and on about revolution when it was really stability we needed all along?
Read Marx in the midst of starvation and unemployment, and it’s a different story. And it’s not his thesis about the class struggle or the dictatorship of the proletariat that accounts for his attraction — in any case to his non-doctrinaire readers. It’s his insight, particularly biting in times of need, that human beings need to escape from need.
Really everything anyone can say here is better said by Marx, especially in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. It is not a text dear to manifesto-makers’ hearts. Marx wrote it young, at 26. It is at once fragmentary, enraged, amused, paradoxical, epigrammatic, desolate. At one place there Marx holds forth on how the political economist, as apologist for capital, shows that ‘the multiplication of needs and of the means (of their satisfaction) breeds the absence of needs and of means’.
‘By counting the most meagre form of life (existence) as the standard, indeed, as the general standard — general because it is applicable to the mass of men. He turns the worker into an insensible being lacking all needs, just as he changes his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. To him, therefore, every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need — be it in the realm of passive enjoyment, or a manifestation of activity — seems to him a luxury…This science of marvellous industry is simultaneously the science of asceticism. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis….The less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, i.e., the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being… The worker may only have enough for him to want to live, and may only want to live in order to have that.’
I don’t know if that gives an accurate picture of the modern consumer economy, which thrives more on people’s ability to spend. But the point is that in times of scarcity, it strikes people, and specially people who don’t have much, particularly hard that they must do without ‘everything that goes beyond the most meagre form of life’. And that this is not fair.
The connection between financial irresponsibility and recession has not passed without notice. The propensity of the poor towards crime and addiction, neither of which increase their life chances, is well known. Of their tendency to riot we have lots of examples. Generally they do not behave with the good sense and prudence which they should given the slightness of their means. After all, they cannot afford to go to jail or end up in hospital. Yet, even if societies in the grip of want do not demand that their poor put their money in the bank, they do in some sense want to put aside their anger, bear their privation, their lack of real life according to Marx, with fortitude.
Marx is so good because he considers the life of the wage-earner as an example of the life of a human being — what is should be, not what it is — and condemns it for its poverty. He takes the having of a life from which they can be estranged as the basis of equality among people. And the sense of what life should be is neither idealism nor utopianism: it is a basic human sense without which people would not be able to orient themselves to the world.
Marx seems to have thought it can be realised best in how people act in time, and not abstractly, and so he pinned hopes of revolution on one class which he thought best placed to grasp and act for change. But he was not thinking only of the fate of one class.
As he said, ‘The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society [a society of individuals]; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity’.
Is any of this relevant to us? Probably not in the form of doctrinaire politics. But as insight into what it might mean to want to abolish poverty…? And not just to thump ourselves on the back in times of relative plenty and preach renunciation and patience to the poor in times of want.
The writer is former Assistant Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and loves to find affinities in objects where no brotherhood exists to common minds
Courtesy: Daily Times, 17/4/2008