On Top of Piketty

by Tim Cavanaugh
The new Marxism has nothing to offer us but chains.

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.

This is where resurgent leftists like Harvey come in. A professor of Marxist geography at City University of New York, Harvey hopes he can (as Marx would say) reify a few alien concepts in contemporary America:

Harvey, for his part, says that any revolution would have to start by “changing mental conceptions of what the good life is,” and that you do so in part by changing the language. Occupy started this work by defining the “1 percent.”

“We saw it in the civil-rights movement and in the gay-and-lesbian movement,” he says. “When you change the language, you can change the way people think and their mental conceptions. And when that changes, you can start to push in new politics.”

This drive to warp language has a distinguished Marxist pedigree. In fact, it was only through pushing perfectly good words to mean something other than what they mean that the patent falsehoods and obvious absurdities of Marxism became truths accepted even by anti-Marxists. Nobody who has ever had a cake fail to rise could believe in the labor theory of value. Marx’s own refutation of relative value, from which all of Das Kapital springs, won’t survive your first yard sale. The natural antagonism between labor and capital, source of all unionization and a vast body of U.S. law, is a Marxist verbal construct. Yet these ideas are all embedded in the public mind as physical reality, while the entirely empirical and commonsense philosophy of Adam Smith has been redefined as dogma.

The Chronicle’s Carlson depicts Harvey retrieving some of the most moth-eaten remnants from Marx’s sample kit while analyzing the problems besetting the city of Baltimore:

He sat on a university commission analyzing housing problems in the city, and in writing the report for city leaders, borrowed ideas from Das Kapital. He found resonance in Marx’s analysis of the conflict between use values (the value of, say, a home as shelter) and exchange values (its value as a property to buy and flip), and in the notion that capital moves problems around (as when blight and gentrification drift through neighborhoods) but never solves them. Harvey says the city leaders—no matter their politics—thought the report was perceptive. “I didn’t tell them I was getting it out of Marx,” he says. “The more it worked for me and worked for other people, the more confidence I got that this was not a crazy system, but was actually quite interesting.”

It would take a pretty devout effort of Marxian will to look at Baltimore’s manifold troubles and see in them an excess of an unbridled free-market thinking. Baltimore pioneered modern zoning codes in 1910, when the city’s progressive mayor J. Barry Mahool declared, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.” It’s not surprising that local political leaders welcomed the news that something other than their leadership was responsible for the city’s decline. Whole swaths of Charm City are as blighted as a late-Communist polity, and many of its boarded-up buildings are decorated with green “Vacants to Value” signs — which are not pitches from private-market flippers but part of a campaign by the city’s housing commissioner.

One of the distinguishing features of the new Marxists is this kind of support for the same forces they claim to oppose. The Occupy movement came and went without mounting any tea-party-style primary challenges against incumbent Democrats, who receive more Wall Street campaign contributions than Republicans do. The government’s use of force always enforces class inequality rather than alleviating it, a point recognized way back in the 1950s by the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Đilas in his great work The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System (which the new Marxists have mysteriously declined to rediscover). Marx’s present-day acolytes are on track to make their perceived problems of capitalism worse.

By that token, Harvey is really off to the races. The Chronicle lists “degradation of the environment” and “curtailing of human freedom” along with class inequality among the free-market outrages he wants to fix. The record of human freedom in the gulag archipelago speaks for itself. But the worst man-made environmental catastrophes in history — including but not limited to the arctic atomic-waste dump, the destruction of the Aral Sea, Mao’s “four pests” disaster, and the full meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant (concealed for weeks by the “moderate” administration of Mikhail Gorbachev) — occurred under Communist regimes.

It’s tiresome to have to have to walk through this large field of settled history again. The Marxist Millennials at least have the excuses of callow youth, miseducation, and an upbringing of privilege unimaginable in any previous time period. But Harvey is 78, and presumably he didn’t have Boomer or X-er parents assuring him since birth of his specialness and effortless mastery of everything. Who, other than the newly thawed-out Austin Powers, could be in any confusion about where the Marxist road ends?

This is the point in the discussion where the Marxists object that the master’s ideas were never correctly implemented but hijacked by people they admit (usually under great duress) were knaves. But you can tell a lot about a system by the people it attracts, and it’s not a coincidence that Marxism’s most ambitious exponents were monsters like Stalin, Mao, and Nicolae Ceaușescu. You could as easily say Carl Schmitt was just unlucky that the Nazis took a shine to his ideas. When the flower is this horrible, what’s the likelihood that there was nothing wrong with the seed?

Defining the Soviet and Maoist states as failed experiments in social justice misses the point. They were attempts to put the essential violence of Marxism in motion, and they succeeded on a spectacular scale. Violence is not incidental to Marx. It’s there throughout his work, between attacks on “vampire capital” and “Jewish hucksterism.” Some samples:

“The only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain.”

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

“The meaning of peace is the absence of opposition to socialism.”

“There is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.”

“No great movement has ever been inaugurated without bloodshed.”

The new Marxists may object that they are not advocating violence, merely calling for a necessary counterbalance to the tyranny of mass murderers like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. But — on the very slim chance that they’re actually reading the original texts of the Grundrisse and On the Jewish Question for themselves — they’re like the teenagers who play around with an old book of incantations during an all-night party at a spooky house. The text is an indecipherable mass of meaningless hocus pocus, but it can still unleash dark forces beyond their control.

In his book The Anti-Capitalist Mentality (an un-Marxist work not only for its ideas but for coming in at a breezy and readable 70 pages), Ludwig von Mises ably describes the campus “anti-anticommunists” who aim for a “communism without those inherent and necessary features that are still unpalatable to Americans” and make an “illusory distinction” between communism and socialism.

“They think that they have proved their case by employing such aliases as planning or the welfare state,” Mises writes. “They pretend to reject the revolutionary and dictatorial aspirations of the ‘Reds’ and at the same time they praise in books and magazines, in schools and universities, Karl Marx, the champion of the communist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, as one of the greatest economists, philosophers and sociologists and as the eminent benefactor and liberator of mankind. They want us to believe that untotalitarian totalitarianism, a kind of triangular square, is the patent medicine for all ills.”

This is worth keeping in mind when Piketty distances himself from anti-capitalists and advises his followers to “read the history books.” In one sense it’s refreshing to have Harvey and the new Marxists put aside the euphemisms and say what they’re really about. But moderately bad ideas eventually end up in the same place as overtly bad ideas, and it’s alarming to see how popular these bad ideas remain a generation after the lesson of Marxism seemed to have been learned for good. Even the mixed, diluted, politically polluted version of a free market we have in America is so much better than all the alternatives that it’s easy to forget something: The “reforms” the equalitists have in mind have been tried in the past, and the result was always general immiseration. Capitalism, not Marxism, is the idea that has never been put into practice.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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