200 Years After His Birth, Marx Has Never Been So Full of Life

Mini Marx figure at the University of Trier. Photo: Jan Maximilian Gerlach. via Flickr.

First published in Libération. Translated by David Broder.

"My advice to the youth: read Karl Marx." This recommendation of Emmanuel Macron’s [in Elle magazine in May 2017] has got more of a hearing than anyone could have hoped for. As we mark the bicentenary of his birth, the famous old bearded face has certainly not disappeared. We see it in the posters on the walls of the occupied universities, in the stickers put up on demos, and the tags on Black Bloc banners.

The anti-capitalist icon can never go out of fashion. But he was also the author of works that remain fundamental to all the humanities and social sciences. This political resilience, combined with his relevance across the various disciplines of scholarship, give Marx a unique position among the classic intellectuals. But why should we continue to read Marx? What explains how his work remains so contemporary?

The first reason is that Marx does not provide a doctrine that stands above time or an explanation that naturalises the present order of things, but a critical theory that anyone can grasp. Marx’s whole approach consists of starting out from the dissonances between human beings’ imaginary and our individual and collective histories, as we are caught in the web of capital.

There are gaps and contradictions between the two. These sometimes turn into social and political struggles. But in any case, they offer us a key to understanding reality, and subverting it. In Marx’s work, this effort — which is also pursued in feminist theories and critical race studies — has its roots in political economy. What has to be subverted, and what can indeed be changed, is the way in which human beings organise their social life. At this level, our own era is even more contemporary to Marx’s work than his own time was, for only at the end of the twentieth century did capitalism extend its grip across the entire planet.

In his greatest but unfinished work Capital, Marx mounted an implacable analysis of a system that develops "only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer." As the realm of the commodity expands, everything is reduced to its exchange value, meaning, its monetary value. The disenchantment of the world that results leads to a generalised greed — the imperative of competitiveness — that has very little respect for beings and things. Hence when critical historians of the environment today reject the term "anthropocene" in favour of "capitalocene," it is because they want to indicate how this form of social — and not human existence as such — is responsible for the ecological destruction killing the planet.

Marx also details the conflict-ridden bases of the wage relationship. The issue here is the exploitation of living labour for profit. Anticipating recent developments of economic analysis that look at incomplete contracts and asymmetries of information, Marx shows that the capitalist’s purchase of labour power poses a problem in terms of the uncertain realisation of the wage-earner’s labour. What he calls "factory despotism" is meant to ensure that the labour power purchased translates into real work. Numerous contemporary economic studies have addressed this exercise of capital’s power over the workers, under the name "principal-agent relationship."

At the macroeconomic level, Marx also sought to shed light on the dynamics of innovation and crisis. If the great economist of financial cycles Hyman Minsky could term Schumpeter and Keynes "conservative Marxists," this was because while both were fierce partisans of capitalism they also delved further into certain aspects — innovation, the role of demand… — that had already been explored in the multiple theories of crisis elaborated by Marx.

Capital is value in movement, and the gamble on the realisation of value could go wrong at any moment. Perhaps the borrower will go bankrupt, products will be rendered obsolete by innovative competitors, or else they will find no buyers for want of sufficient demand. Under capitalism, for the first time in human history, economic crisis can emerge amidst conditions of abundance — something that would have been unthinkable in the ancient or feudal worlds.

As the philosopher Gilles Deleuze indicates, the most fascinating thing in Marx is his "analysis of capitalism as an immanent system that ceaselessly pushes back its own limits, and then encounters them again at an ever-higher level — for the limit is capital itself." Marx had detected a historical tendency toward capitalist accumulation that went beyond the ins and outs of economic cycles.

Paradoxically, the development of this system based on generalised competition is also the rise of a generalised socialisation. Not only does one capitalist kill off many others, driving the formation of monopolies — like in the big tech firms today — but the developing division of labour leads to an ever-greater interdependency between our scattered activities. Fed by competition and the conflict between labour and capital, technological change thus not only ceaselessly creates new opportunities for profit, or increases the power of those who hold capital, but also establishes the conditions for another form of social life.

A partisan of communism, Marx hoped that this new form of social life would be a better one — though we also know that it can be worse. This future remains to be written. And yet is also already here, in the form of latent possibilities concealed within the tiny cracks running through capitalism. Today, capitalism may not have any rivals. But it nonetheless remains fragile.