Help! I’m a Marxist who defends capitalism

The benefits of global capitalism

28 November 2007

As one of the Marxists named in James Delingpole’s recent Spectator article (3 November) on his alleged conversion to the commie cause, I really should be angrier about reckless, risk-hungry, overambitious bankers. Yet I find myself in the curious position today of thinking capitalism isn’t risk-hungry enough, certainly in areas where it matters: developing the forces of production and creating new wealth. I also find myself shaking my head in violent disagreement whenever I hear so-called radicals put the boot into capitalism. They seem to loathe the very parts of the capitalist system that Marx quite liked. Delingpole’s crisis of Tory/commie identity is nothing compared with mine: Help! I’m a Marxist who sometimes feels the urge to defend capitalism.

It’s trendy to be an anti-capitalist these days. Newspaper columnists attack greedy fat-cats and their big bonuses. Environmentalists protest about the impact of the capitalists’ dirty factories and aeroplane-enabled international trade on poor Mother Earth, where it’s not so much a case of everything solid melting into air, as Marx described the rise of the bourgeoisie, but everything solid polluting the air, with smog and soot and various other Very Bad Things. Some posh kids born with an entire cutlery set of silver in their mouths now stop washing their hair in order to develop dreadlocks and then wield cudgels against a McDonald’s restaurant or a Starbucks outlet. Meanwhile, everyone looks at China as it lumbers from Stalinism to capitalism, building a mind-boggling two coal-fired power stations every week, and says in unison: ‘Eeerugh!’

Marx would have told these shallow anti-capitalists to get a grip. Where they view capitalists as overly cocky and arrogant, always erecting new factories and building new cities to satisfy mankind’s insatiable lust for stuff, Marx was quite happy to champion the naked ambition of the capitalist class. In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and his sidekick Frederick Engels upheld and even celebrated the achievements of capitalism in overcoming and controlling nature, through its rapid development of industry, science, agriculture and telecommunications. The capitalist class was the first in history, said Marx and Engels, to ‘show what man’s activity can bring about’. In only a century, it had ‘accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades’. These days, the ‘wonders’ of modern capitalism — whether it’s the 4×4 or digital TV or genetically modified crops — are more likely to be looked upon as wicked things that corrupt nature rather than as wonderful things that liberate humanity. It is striking that, today, well-off newspaper columnists and the spoilt-brat sons and daughters of the aristocracy and other money-lubed sections of society are unwilling to defend the kind of capitalist gains that even communists were celebrating more than 150 years ago.

Today’s capitalist-bashers also dislike international trade and development, especially since it involves flying products around the world, which leaves a long, streaking carbon skidmark in the skies. Environmentalists bang on about the problem of ‘food miles’ — the distance grub travels before it reaches our plates — and even ‘love miles’, the bloody killjoys, which refers to the distance your red roses and boxes of Belgian chocolates travel before you hand them, like an unthinking slave to capitalist desire, to your loved one. New movements celebrate local production over international trade: the Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year for 2007 is ‘locavore’, which refers to a new breed of green-leaning Westerner who only eat food grown or harvested within 100 miles of where he or she lives. Meanwhile, Naomi Klein, queen of the anti-capitalists, writes tear-drenched tirades against the spread of capitalism into every corner of the globe, while eco-commentators celebrate the virtues of those few remaining tribes that have remained relatively capitalism-free.

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Yet Marx quite admired the internationalising tendencies of the capitalist system. He argued that, ‘to the chagrin of reactionists’, capitalism dislodges local and national industries and turns production into a global phenomenon. ‘The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation’, he and Engels wrote. Now, if you will forgive their 19th-century language, ‘inappropriate’ and un-PC, I know, their point is clear: globalisation at least has the benefit of smashing down silly local practices and ‘civilising’ formerly backward societies. What’s more, this opens up the potential for a truly universal culture, said the communist duo: ‘The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.’

Hurrah! Only today’s lazy anti-capitalists — locavores and ‘reactionists’ the lot of them — celebrate the local over the international, and fight to preserve one-sided and narrow-minded cultural practices around the world from what they see as the carbon bootprint of capitalist expansionism. Unlike Marx, they’re not interested in superseding capitalism with something better — with something even more global and more productive, which will leave an even bigger human footprint on the planet — but rather in returning to a pre-capitalist era of local food production, dancing around maypoles and early death from cholera or malnutrition.

What today’s anti-capitalists loathe most is the ‘consumer society’, with its incessant advertising and wicked temptation to buy, buy, buy. On Buy Nothing Day, at the end of November, anti-capitalist protesters on Oxford Street and elsewhere advised shoppers to ‘detox from consumerism’ because ‘everything we buy has an impact on our planet’. Meanwhile, serious psychologists (as well as the seriously psychotic) claim that consumerism makes us ill — it gives us ‘affluenza’, apparently. Geddit?

Marx loved the consumer society. Indeed he described it as a ‘civilising moment’ of capital. In the Grundrisse, he wrote: ‘In spite of all his “pious” speeches, [the capitalist] searches for means to spur [the workers] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire them with new needs by constant chatter, etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilising moment.’ It is striking that what a bearded communist described as ‘civilising’ 150 years ago — the chatter and charms of consumerism — is now written off by anti-capitalists as dangerous and corrupting.

Of course, Marx wanted to destroy capitalism because he thought it didn’t go far enough in remaking the world in man’s image and organising society according to man’s needs and desire. Today’s sorry excuses for Marxists and anti-capitalists think capitalism has gone too far in its development of the forces of production and encouragement of consumerism. I’m with Marx. Let’s replace capitalism with something even more dazzlingly cocky and human-centric. But let’s first deal with the luddites, locavores and eco-feudalists who have given anti-capitalism a bad name.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com).

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Show comments
  • Marshall Somerset

    Marx recognised, and praised, the revolutionary aspects of capitalism including the creation of a global, revolutionary working class. He and Engels also recognised its destructive side, Engels on the English slums, Marx on factory conditions, and yes even its damage to the environment (read all the Grundrisse, Brendan, not just the pro-capitalist bits). Finally, Marx and Engels dedicated the majority of their lives to the struggle to overthrow capitalism not just criticising the wrong ideas of leftists such as Proudhon or Bakunin. And Marx made clear that to overthrow capitalism means abolishing private property and taking the bosses’ wealth, not just “replacing it with a better system”. Still if you want to become the “house Marxist” of the bourgeoisie then it’s probably best to praise the capitalists and shoot the rebels.

  • David Lindsay

    Of course capitalism leads to Marxism, or else to Jacobinism, anarchism or Fascism. Such is the reaction of the despairing millions to the effects of capitalism on their lives. That’s why we need social democracy, in order to conserve everything that conservatives exist to conserve, both against capitalism itself and against the reactions against it. That’s why, in fact within social democracy, we need the employers like Taki’s father (and, on trusts, Taki himself) recently cited most favourably in a High Life column as keeping wage disparity to a minimum in order to prevent the rise of Communism. And that’s why, behind both of these and more, we need Catholic Social Teaching, the most (indeed, to the best of my knowledge, the only) comprehensive conservative critique of capitalism.

  • Brian Wilkins

    This article confuses different views that are opposed to capitalism but which don’t really have anything else to do with each other.

    Marx opposed capitalism because he thought that, although it promoted economic development to begin with, after a certain stage it trammelled further economic development.

    Some people who call themselves “ant-capitalist” these days are anti-consumerism. I concede that anti-consumerism is silly when taken to extremes, and I think it is hypocritical when upheld by people who really enjoy having nice things but take them for granted and don’t appreciate them. But that does not mean that it is wrong to keep a little sceptical when advertisers push the message that happiness is to be found by consuming more and more things that you don’t really need.

    The article criticizes people who are concerned about the environment. But when Marx was alive things were different to how they are today, and the danger to the environment was not so pressing. So of course Marx’s concerns then were different to what ours are now. It’s daft to imply that “anti-capitalists” who are worried about the environment are inconsistent because Marx was not worried about it back in the nineteenth century. If Marx were still alive now it is not credible to suppose that his views would not have changed as the situation changed.

  • Hassan Joudi

    @ David Lindsay:

    Actually several conservative critiques of capitalism exist, one of these is the book “Our Philosophy” by Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr. See http://www.al-islam.org/philosophy/ , mainly in the Introduction section (“The Social Issue”).

    The author provides a comprehensive philosophical critique of both capitalistic democracy and communism and how they are both based on materialism. He goes on to propose an Islamic social system not based on any previous socialist school of thought.

  • Chris Oliver

    Why does Brian Wilkins, in an otherwise terrific blog comment, say the environment is more under threat than in Marx’s day? Can he really believe our cities are more stinky and rotten and unsanitary than they were in Victorian times of horse piss, open sewers and coal fires? Maybe he, like almost everyone else, has global warming in mind? I would be fascinated to learn if any readers of this site know of any credible figures for the best global mean temperature for human existence, the best mean temperature for maximising biomass and the best mean temperature for maximising biodiversity. If we don’t know the answers – and I bet we don’t – we’re being asked to take expensive and probably futile pre-emptive action against global warming which may not be a problem, which may not be significantly contributed to by human co2 emissions.

  • FSK

    The problem is that the USA is actually a Communist country!


  • Dodgy Geezer

    Umm…. Rather than a Marxist who supports Capitalism, I see someone born into an ideological rejection of the Capitalist ethos, but who wants to have all the fruits. Unfortunately, there is no way of ‘superseding Capitalism with something better..’; that will just kill the goose that lays the golden eggs you hunger for so much…

  • James Buckingham

    Marx realised the benefitsof capitalism alright. Whilst he was spending his time pontificating about the problems of capitalism he wasn’t actually earning any money and wasalways in debt. He was constantly writing to his uncle for loans. fortunately for him his uncle could indulge him as he was the capitalist who founded shell. Then, as now, capitalism delivered whilst Marxism dreamt. Can anyone think of a successful Marxist or communsit state? If you look at the two diametrically opposed systems haring the same geographical space of Korea and therefore both having similar opportunities which is the one with people starving whilst next door the other country is prosperous?

  • Tom Smith

    The article contained a few interesting facts but ignores TODAY’s problems of continued slavery of half the population who struggle to feed themselves, while others have a thousand times more money than they could ever appreciate. Even in the relatively rich UK, the peasants (ie anyone without a house) get (in relative terms) £30,000 poorer each year (ie the increased cost of getting on the housing ladder) while the rich landlords take an ever-growing transfer of funds from them (rent) making it harder for them to live/save.

    As for the author’s comment that thanks to globalised capitalism, new ideas belong to the international community: in fact generally they (eg medicines, software, music) become copywrited by rich multinationals that overcharge consumers for (often temporary) use of them. That’s hardly the same thing. And most of the world’s population can not afford them. So while we just smugly celebrated 200 years since the abolition of slavery, in fact little has changed. Try telling a starving plantation worker that he is “free” to leave any time — and walk 100 miles to the next plantation and work for the same slave-wages there.

    And you’ve probably forgotten that long-life lightbulbs and fuel-saving cars were patented ages ago and stopped from being manufactured by these same multinational companies that have no interest in sharing ideas with others and improving the world – only improving their balance sheets and pensions for the directors (usually by raiding or closing down pension-schemes for the workers, leaving them to retire in poverty).

    As someone who’s lived in several countries, I appreciate some aspects of globalisation, but not the concentration of wealth and therefore power in the hands of a few.

    In the UK the problems is compounded by the fact that any money the peasants (renters) make will only be transfered to landlords and they will never be able to participate in the housing-boom. The only people who profit are property-investors and ex-pats buying up affordable housing in poorer countries – thereby impoverishing more people in those countries by not allowing them to get on the housing ladder there. Yet another downside to globalisation.

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