Daniel W. Drezner

The Hipster Global Political Economy of Karl Marx

The Hipster Global Political Economy of Karl Marx

Over at Tablet, Michelle Goldberg writes about the new trend among critics, hipsters, and intellectuals — Karl Marx.

[We are] at a moment of newly fervent interest in Marx among young writers, activists, and scholars, who have begun, the wake of the financial crisis, to identify capitalism as a problem rather than an inevitability….

After the financial crisis, “you didn’t need to be Karl Marx to see that people were getting kicked out of their homes,” says [n + 1 cofounder Keith] Gessen. And privileged young people—particularly the kind of who are inclined to read and write essays about political theory—haven’t just been spectators to immiseration. Graduating with student debt loads that make them feel like indentured servants, they’ve had a far harder time than their predecessors finding decent jobs in academia, publishing, or even that old standby law and are thus denied the bourgeois emollients that have helped past generations of college radicals reconcile themselves to the status quo.

If there were a Republican president, they might see hope in electing a Democrat. But Barack Obama already won, and it didn’t help. “If you win something and you are disappointed with the results, in a way that’s more politicizing than just losing and losing and losing over again,” says [Jacobin founder Bhaskar] Sunkara.

So, they’re hungry for a theory that offers a thoroughgoing critique of the system, not just a way to ameliorate its excesses. “[F]or at least a generation now, not only the broad public but many radical themselves have felt uncertain that the left possessed a basic analysis of contemporary capitalism, let alone a program for its replacement,” [writer Benjamin] Kunkel writes in the introduction to Utopia or Bust. Reaching back into the canon, he and others have found, at least, the former.

As for the latter? In the absence of a clear programmatic goal, never mind a party or organization, the new Marxism has a certain weightlessness. No one seems to have even a wisp of an answer to the perennial question: What is to be done?

I have some decidedly mixed feelings about all of this.

My first, superficial reaction is, as someone who had to read a lot of Marx in college and graduate school, I’m glad to see that those hours/days might not all go to waste.

My second reaction is that a return to Marx seems entirely appropriate. For all the twentieth century focus on what Marxists did once they came to power, it is worth remembering that 95% of what Marx wrote about was a critique of capitalist political economy — he offered very little in the way of what to do instead. Indeed, Marx’s made a couple of significant contributions to political economy, and the post-2008 world puts a lot of them on display. Following Smith and Ricardo, he was really one of the first to think about capitalism as a global rather than a national phenomenon.

Going beyond Smith and Ricardo, Marx stressed two important facets of the market that they did not. First, he stressed that crisis was endogenous to global capitalism. Marx acknowledged and admired the productive machine that was the capitalist system, but he also stressed that periodic busts were baked into the system. This is a point that spread into some corners of mainstream economics — see Hyman Minsky, Charles Kindleberger or even Reinhart and Rogoff — but could do with a little more emphasis in the old grad school syllabus.

The second dimension Marx stressed was power — which is why he’s still appreciated among those who study global political economy. A riff through The Communist Manifesto or the highly underrated Wage Labor and Capital shows the ways in which Marx appreciated how capitalism led to a redistribution and concentration of economic power over time. It’s not that hard to find recent empirical work that bolsters a Marxist analysis of economic power.

That said — and you knew there was a "that said" coming — the current moment also highlights some Very Big Things that Marx got wrong — badly, world-historically wrong. First, as an economic determinist, Marx was convinced that class triumphed over all other political cleavages — including nationalism. That’s…. really untrue — and the lack of truth about it affects any decent analysis of the global political economy.

Second, Marx believed that ideas were merely the manifestation of economic power, with little independent influence of their own. And if nothing else, the way the current debt ceiling deadlock/government shutdown has played out in Washington suggests the limits of that kind of structural Marxist analysis. We’re operating in a world where the core business interests in the United States — for kicks, let’s call them the "executive committee of the bourgeoisie" — are being ignored. Now it’s possible that Tea Party activists have some economic skin in the game – see this outstanding exchange between Ezra Klein and Tim Carney for more on that — but it’s a stretch to say that the Tea Party is acting out of economic interests rather than, say, creedal passions.

Still, no one’s model of political economy is perfect, and I do think Marx has a few insights that might be worth contemplating (and rebutting). Your humble blogger will be intrigued to see whether this intellectual embrace of Marx will lead to some better analysis of the global political economy…. or, instead, a cameo appearance by the Marx-Engels reader in an episode of Girls (even if Lena Dunham is an underrated political thinker).

What do you think?