History is repeating itself as farce. Fresh off the roaring success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century comes David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, which Chronicle of Higher Education senior writer Scott Carlson describes as a “distillation of Harvey’s 40-year study of Karl Marx” and “a bid to change the conversation about what’s not working and what’s possible—especially when many have consigned Marx to history’s dustbin.”
Marx, however, was never actually consigned to history’s dustbin. That was the fate of the unanimously murderous regimes that put his ideas into practice — and even that job is only partly completed. Venezuelans are still getting starved and beaten to a pulp in the name of 21st-century socialism, a movement that the late Hugo Chávez managed to export to Bolivia and Ecuador. Erstwhile Sandinista Daniel Ortega has been back fighting inequality in Nicaragua since 2007, mainly by keeping incomes flat over a period when incomes in comparable Latin American countries have grown by about half. For nearly 70 years, the Kim family’s juche spirit has been transforming North Korea into a bronze-age dynasty that has nuclear weapons but no consumer electricity.
When Western intellectuals herald the return of Marx, they’re not talking about these real-world examples of human suffering but about what really matters: cocktail-party discussions among Western intellectuals. There, Marx lite and Marx hardcore are doing great.
The English translation of Piketty’s book is now in first place on the New York Times bestseller list, just ahead of redistributionist Senator Elizabeth Warren’s A Fighting Chance and improbably topping a memoir by national treasure Diane Keaton, a biography of Duke Wayne, and other more-interesting-sounding books. Piketty emphatically states that he’s not an anti-capitalist, but his 700-page argument for a global wealth tax serves as the erudite frosting on a confection of dumbed-down Communism that has already manifested in Occupy Wall Street and broadsides such as Nation writer Timothy Shenk’s recent think piece on “Marxist Millennials” (an article so long that nobody is sure whether the author has finished writing it).
There’s also the widely praised print magazine Jacobin, which offers “socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture” and is named for Maximilien de Robespierre’s cadre of French revolutionaries who introduced the words “guillotine” and “terrorism” to common parlance. Also out since the beginning of this year: the collection of essays Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA; Benjamin Kunkel’s survey of contemporary leftists Utopia or Bust; and for light reading, Zizek’s Jokes from unwashed Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek.
This may seem like a trend, but Marx has never vanished from the academy. The stubborn refusal of applied Marxism to produce anything but mass murder merely led to efforts to reframe the philosophy. Through much of the 20th century, Marx was clearly the greatest economist of all time, but his ideas had never been properly put into practice. Then he might have dwindled as an economist but was indisputably an important historian. When that didn’t pan out, Gramscian “cultural Marxism” allowed overwhelmed graduate students to avoid economics and history altogether in order to focus on Batman. When all else failed (and with Marxism, it always fails), Marx lived on through the claim that while his ideas may have faded, he was still an important figure of literature — a particular howler to anybody familiar with his clotted, vituperative, headache-inducing prose.
What has changed is not in the sphere of ideas — where Marx truly has nothing new to say — but in the sphere of government. The Democrats have decided that “inequality” is going to be their big campaign idea in November, and they may be on to something. Nearly five years after the putative end of the recession, 83 percent of Americans rate the country’s economic conditions as “only fair” or “poor,” according to the most recent Pew Center for People & the Press survey; and 73 percent say conditions will be “the same” or “worse” in a year. The difference between respondents who think Republican policies would do more to strengthen the economy (43 percent) and those who prefer President Obama’s policies (39 percent) is not great. Despite wall-to-wall media claims of an economic recovery, two-thirds do not believe the economy is recovering fast enough and more than a fourth say it’s not recovering at all. The Obama jobs recovery is the worst since World War II, and probably the worst in the history of the United States. (Following the two severe recessions that made up the Great Depression, unemployment reduction was far more rapid than it has been since 2009; and while the economic history of the 19th century is largely ignored or fictionalized by modern macroeconomists, the recessions or “panics” of that era were typically sharp, deep, and followed by robust employment growth.) If ever there was a time to reintroduce Marx’s crabbed vocabulary about late capitalism and the inevitability of history, it’s now.