Every year or two, I try to include some selections from Karl Marx in one or another of my undergraduate courses. Just so no one freaks out about commie influences in the university, I should add that I also try to include Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Aquinas, and various other right-wing faves. But I’ll admit it right off, teaching Marx seems especially worthwhile right now, just because students get so much of the Adam Smith/John Locke viewpoint automatically, from the culture at large.
And for teaching Marx, the last decade has been pretty special — think of it as a Richard Scarry-style Big Book of the Communist Manfesto, a string of handy real-life-right-now, brightly-colored examples of what Marx had in mind. Declining real wages? We’ve got ’em. Globalization and the concentration of enterprises, as big companies gobble up the small? Check. Upending of traditional values, what Marx meant when he said “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned?” Just take a look at the corporate sponsors for any self-respecting Gay Pride march nowadays– part of what drives culture conservatives crazy these days is having the big money titans line up with free range lifestyle radicals. (Of course, also be sure to look at what happens when a Gay Pride group tries to get too radical, say by naming Chelsea Manning as honorary parade marshall.)
Most useful of all for us teachers, we’ve got the phenomenon that Marx identified as the weirdest of capitalism’s weird features, crises of overproduction. Every few years, as he and Engels explained, capitalist societies look like “a famine, a universal war of devastation” has passed through; all the businesses are stopped, people are going hungry. But no, it’s not war or pestilence, it’s that “there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.” Our wonderful machines have produced too much, it doesn’t get sold, workers lose their jobs, they go broke and so do all the people who sell stuff to them.
If that’s hard to picture, spend some time up here in the Rust Belt, where we’ve got near-bankrupt cities spending big money to tear down surplus housing, while at the same time spending more money to care for their homeless.
Given all this, you might think we’d be living in a golden age of Marxist analysis– maybe not out there in what the immortal Cleo Birdwell calls the “dark skizzy heart of America,” but at least among us tenured radicals in the universities. I mean, in an age of Marx-called-it social problems, you might expect some Marx-inspired understandings of how societies work.
But this is one reason our era counts as an all-time weird moment in cultural history– as in so many other domains, what you’d expect hasn’t happened, just the opposite: the intellectuals seem to go out of their way to tell us how little Marx has to say that might interest us.
Take for instance the French economics professor Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century was last summer’s bombshell global bestseller. Piketty is prominent in the French Socialist Party, and his book title of course echoes Marx’s own book Capital. But Piketty’s gone way out of his way to explain that he’s never even read much Marx, let alone been influenced; the Communist Manifesto is pretty good, he told an American interviewer, but as for Capital it’s basically tl;dr.
How often do professors boast about not reading famous books?
Or take another economics department leading light, the Greek Yanis Varoufakis. Already prominent as a jet-setting professor, Varoufakis became Greece’s finance minister last January, and an international celebrity as well– newspapers carried photos of him motorcycling around Athens, and the French glamor magazine Paris Match had a big photo spread showing him and his beautiful wife at home in their very beautiful, Parthenon-adjacent apartment.
Unlike Piketty, Varoufakis speaks passionately about how much he’s learned from Marx, and he even calls himself “an erratic Marxist.” But having said that, he also wants to make it completely, absolutely clear that Marx has had no influence on his actual work as an economist or politician. “My whole academic career largely ignored Marx,” he explained soon after entering the government, “and my current policy recommendations are impossible to describe as Marxist.” Varoufakis has some pretty moving thoughts about what he did learn from Marx, but basically it amounts to being a more sensitive guy. Thanks to Marx, he explains, he recognizes that workers contribute as much as business owners to producing wealth, he feels bad about flying first class, he doesn’t get taken in by neo-liberal propaganda.
Since Marx spent most of his adult life sneering at rich do-gooders with tender consciences, he probably wouldn’t be impressed by all this emoting.
So what’s the deal? You can’t say anything much from a couple of cases like these, and I’ll try to get back to this topic in a few days. But consider this as a starting point: maybe all those conservatives should stop worrying about tenured radicals in the universities, even when (like Piketty and Varoufakis) they give themselves socialist labels. The universities have their role to play in keeping our systems going, and that role includes defusing troublesome ideas. And if Marx seems especially relevant to our circumstances these days, maybe that just makes defusing them all the more urgent.