Marx and ‘Cannibalistic Liberalism’

On this day in 1848, The Communist Manifesto was published. In many ways, the text has dated rather badly (concerned as it is with the earliest phase of the industrial revolution). It is moreover overly concerned with petty internecine struggles which have marred the European left ever since. Yet in many respects, the Manifesto and the analysis it contains can still challenge our thinking. Consider the following passage:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation”.

Image result for karl marxMarx is always at his best when he is talking about loss, a reality he both delights in and mourns. In our era of hyper-globalisation, Marx helps us see a liberalism which has finally cannibalized itself. J.S.Mill speaks in his essay ‘On Liberty’ about ‘experiments in living’ as the goal of liberal politics. People, Mill says, should have the chance to invent a life which suits their diverse temperaments. But shared cultures (whether local, tribal or national) are also experiments in living (attempts to produce diverse human lives). But are we entering an era when only one global culture is possible? Has liberalism become so synonymous with a single model of Western Capitalism that ‘experiments in living’ actually come to an end? Is the liberal snake eating its own tail?  The evidence for the latter conjecture is for all to see. As non-European countries become ever more involved in the modernizing processes of market economics,  many aspects of Western life (consumerism, status-anxiety, and atomism) are reproduced in exact detail. Cities begin to resemble each other, with the same transport systems, characterless office blocks and gleaming shopping areas. All pre-modern forms of cultural life are gradually confined to specialist museums and galleries, safely discharged of their power to recall to the passing viewer the relative drabness of the ever progressing present. In a world where both time and space are being continually reconfigured, history is allowed to entertain, but it is not allowed to call the sameness of the modern into question. As Marx always appreciated, the best weapon against the insanity of the present is to make the past a weapon.

If physical space is increasingly been harmonized (robbed of the unsettling ghosts of the past) the impact of a dominant American media has ensured that Western habits of dress and taste are effortlessly reproduced. Few countries now stand in the way of this homogenizing tendency and those that do (like the semi-feudal North Korea) do so only by extreme force and internal repression.The same can be said of the Taliban of Afganistan or Pakistan. Yet is cruel fundamentalism the only alternative to the callousness of a different kind? It seems that political imagination in the Enlightenment heartlands of Western Europe is sorely lacking. The majority of Liberal-democratic leaders merely shrug their shoulders and bow to what they regard as the uncontestable hand of the market at work even if the consequences are dire. An excellent example of such an approach can be found in a speech Tony Blair gave to Labour’s annual conference in 2005. Castigating political critics of globalization, Blair observed:

I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer…All these nations have labour costs a fraction of ours. All can import the technology. All of them will attract capital as it moves, trillions of dollars of it, double what was available even 10 years ago, to find the best return. The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change. Unless we “own” the future, unless our values are matched by a completely honest understanding of the reality now upon us and the next about to hit us, we will fail

Globalization “has no custom and practice”, says Blair. In this grim assessment, he follows Marx’s fundamental insight, but instead of seeking to pull back from the invasion of a marketised society, this most market-orientated of social democrats insists on perpetual change and a sink or swim ethic. Romantic notions of solidarity are stripped of all meaning as the law of the jungle becomes the law of politics and culture. Here fatalism and pseudo-economics now eclipse both liberty and democracy.  What matters is economic fitness, not guiding principles we are reluctant to change. One must ask, is this liberalism, or something else which has insidiously inherited its name? Certainly, if China is anything to go by these globalizing/modernizing processes Blair praises can get on perfectly well without formal creeds of freedom or democracy. Perhaps China is a troubling mirror for a Western world so certain that open economies equal open societies. Just as the governments which used and abused the name of Marx developed totalizing and totalitarian visions of the world, has liberal democracy (in its own quiet way) become stifling and tyrannical? If we follow Blair’s logic to its conclusion, we are not free to build a larger life, but must be engaged in a single race for some generalized prosperity. All barriers to this process (the past, tradition, and custom) must be swept away in its ruthless pursuit.

The results of such an attitude are not hard to guess at. Will all human beings eventually be forced into standardized existences of IPads, car parks, and drive-throughs all for the sake of the smooth running of global markets? The great Canadian philosopher George Grant thought so. He imagined a future where everything is so mass-produced, a traveler could go anywhere on earth and sleep in the identical hotel room. Time will tell regarding the accuracy of such predictions, but the Manifesto remains a challenging testament to the notion of an alternative future beyond monoculture. Indeed for Marx, his longed-for future was one recognizable to any liberal, the formation of a liquid self which defies the imposition of a totalizing way of living. As Marx noted later in the German Ideology: ‘[under communism] it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic’. Whatever such a world is called, whether communist, socialist, liberal, conservative, or anarchist, may such a day come soon.

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