The Corner

Marx & Crisis

A reader tipped me off that Matt Yglesias has a piece extolling the brilliance of Marx over at Foreign Policy. Truth be told, I have no objection to extolling the brilliance of Marx. He was a very smart guy. There’s no way you can ensorcell generations of intellectuals without having something going for you. But Yglesias’ whole ode to Marx rests on Marx’s insight that capitalist systems have periodic crises. Yglesias thinks this is a brilliant and deeply meaningful perspective, all the more so because it has been confirmed by ideologues every stripe. He writes:

At the time Marx was writing, the modern era of financial crises was quite new, and so this point was both original and by no means obvious. Subsequently, we’ve had more than 100 years to study the operations of capitalist financial systems and that time has proven Marx so overwhelmingly correct that the observation no longer counts as distinctively Marxian. Everyone, from followers of John Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman’s monetarists to the “Austrian School” of extreme libertarians agrees that periodic episodes of crisis are endemic to the system. This is not to take anything away from Marx, who got to the point quickly. But bringing him up only to cite him making a now-banal point seems almost as if we’re exhuming the corpse in order to demonstrate to the village that it’s still dead. Not to explore our doubts about capitalism, in other words, but to quiet them by making it seem as if Marx doesn’t have anything to say that we don’t already know.

I would suggest on the contrary that there’s no time like the present to learn from Marx’s theory of ideology — the idea that wealth and power have a tremendous ability to gin up self-justifying narratives. Global elites’ curious passivity in the face of the growing housing bubble was an excellent example.

Well, if you want to give Marx full and sole credit for the insights that capitalism hits the occasional speed bump or that wealthy and powerful people self-servingly justify their own status, you’re free to do so. But my guess is that you can find people making the second point in the Bible (Hebrew and Christian), among the ancient Greeks and Romans, in Confucian China and amongst all of the philosophes of France.

As for the first point, well, here’s the thing: Every human thing has “periodic episodes of crisis.” It is an eternal trope of leftism to assign to its enemies problems that are generic to humanity itself.

Is it remotely true that socialism doesn’t have “periodic episodes of crisis”? Communism? Fabianism? Feudalism? And, let’s not just consider grand experiments in political economy. Families have such episodes, businesses, religions, sports teams, political parties, individuals (both in terms of their health and emotional state) even ecosystems and solar systems have their down times, if one can be forgiven for anthropomorphizing them.

Physicists, geologists, sociologists, biologists, psychologists and historians can each tell you how there are discernible patterns to their subjects, that small problems or tensions or contradictions build until they bring about a “crisis “and then there’s a new equilibrium. So it is with what we call capitalism. (Indeed, this is a very Marxist-Hegelian point).

Now, the political Marxist will tell you that there’s some internal Hegelian mechanism unique to capitalism that makes it different than other systems (using the broadest definition of system possible). Eschewing the desire to simply say “you’re wrong,” we can concede the point without losing much. Because it is also true — as Marx himself would admit with only a few caveats — that capitalism is also the best system ever created for generating wealth. Marx’s insight that capitalism has its bad moments hardly trumps the now equally proven benefits of capitalism.

The idea that you can eliminate crisis from this existence is nonsense wherever you find it, and it was the chief nonsensical component of all Marxian theory. You can’t immanentize the eschaton. Ever.

Update: From a reader:

would it bo too kind to suggest that, amidst the pogroms, mass starvations and cultural stagnation, socialism has produced periodic successes?

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