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Review Article

Marx on Globalisation

Anup Sinha

This *volume is a carefully presented set of writings by Marx (and Engels) along with the author's own commentary. The term 'globalisation' was never used by Marx, but he and Engels had their own views of capitalism as a world system and its dynamic implications for socio-economic change. Currently many scholars question the relevance of Marx and Engels in a world that has changed dramatically since the middle of the nineteenth century when most of their observations on capitalism were written. This volume culls out the several comments scattered throughout their writings which have a remarkable relevance in today's world. The world has certainly changed since the nineteenth century, and Marx would have been the first to expect it as his major method of understanding capitalism was a dynamic one, and change would be inherent in the unfolding of history. Despite this change, some essential features of capitalism and its impact on human society remains. Can one re-learn some of the observations of Marx? Is there a lesson for contemporary action programmes to transform society? This volume is an attempt to provide food for thought where the menu is couched in today's language. Each section is introduced by the author and then selected extracts of Marx (mainly) and Engels (a few) are re-printed. The sections are on The World Economy, Progress, The Inevitability of Development? Imperialism, Technological Determinism, Commodities and Consumerism, Capital, Money, Wages and Trade and Capital, Finance and Profit, and concludes with a section on Labour.

I will leave it to the reader to reach her own conclusions about the relevance and the lessons from the extracts. I will however, share in this review a few observations I had when reading this book. Firstly, many popular caricatured versions of Marx, even within the left political organisations are that capitalism was wholly destructive and negative in all its features. However, Marx and Engels were fully aware of the productive features of capitalism in opening up the world economy to capital accumulation and breaking up the stagnation of feudalism, especially in Western Europe. They wrote in the Communist Manifesto : (Renton page 29)

"The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, applications of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour."

This same momentum of technological change and science based applications of the modern day—the ICT revolution, the spurt in electronics and telecommunications, the rise of biotechnology and nanotechnology continue to reveal the productive potential of capitalism. But on the other hand as Marx had predicted that these would not be of use and benefit to the vast majority of the workers who actually created these artefacts, and indeed their living conditions would become relatively poorer and unpredictable in terms of unemployment, wages and security of work. That also seems to have emerged as a condition of modern labour force—security of tenure, bargaining power over income, movements in real wages and the ability to organise has been severely limited. The domination of large corporations, many of them larger than nation states in economic size, is omnipresent. They control national policies, consumer tastes, and new investments in technology and the conditions of labour. Inequality of wealth and income has become far worse than during Marx's time. The fundamental contradiction between the oppressor and the oppressed remains. The only difference is that the absolute standard of the working class has improved and the lure of consumer goods for all often creates a veil of ignorance about the oppression. The passive revolution of capital creates a subtle mix of coercion and consent that appears with its great bait of consumerism which has become the new opium of the working class. Finally, the working class is no longer a closely-knit working-together mass of people. They are more educated, loosely moving around, forgetting and learning new skills, and drifting in an uncertain, often incomprehensible world. It is a far cry from Marx's Europe. Despite the seeming differences, is there an essential contradiction that remains though its manifestation may be in the form of a mirage of attractive images?

The other aspect of the selection by Renton I would like to draw the reader's attention to is a related issue as to whether the essential nature of capitalism can emerge from different historical settings. This is the discussion in Section 3 titled 'The Inevitability of Development?' Here of course the meaning of development was the advent of capitalism and its expansion, but then Marx elaborated on the dynamic contradictions of capitalism. Periodic crises and a revolutionary transformation of society would then lead to a new set ol institutions (relations of production) and supersede the older form of social and economic structures. Marx had initially looked at the transformation of feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe as a truly revolutionary (first) way to capitalism. Later he looked at other historical experiences such as Germany and Russia where he predicted from historical studies that the path to capitalism would emerge but the route could be quite different (second way) from that of Western Europe or even the non-capitalist path where the Russian agrarian communes had the potential to convert to collective farms with social ownership of the means of production.

Marx observed: (Renton page 77): "Let us discount for the time being all the miseries besetting the agricultural commune in Russia and consider only its capacity for further development. It occupies a unique position, without precedent in history. Alone in Europe, it is still the predominant organic form of rural life throughout an immense empire. The common ownership of land provides it with the natural basis for collective appropriation, and its historical setting, its contemporaneity with capitalist production, lends it—fully developed—the material conditions for cooperative labour organised on a vast scale. It can thus incorporate the positive acquisitions devised by the capitalist system without passing through its Claudine Forks."

This is not the place to go deep into what happened in Russia subsequently and then the final collapse of the experiment in the late twentieth century. However, the issue I wish to highlight is that Marx had seemingly believed (albeit not very convincingly) that socialism could emerge from many settings. The most likely path however, was through the opening up of world markets through trade and capital flows, and the advent of a homogeneous working class would bring about a fall of the capitalist class. There was a belief that even if capitalism was not inevitable, its overthrow and the advent of a new social order were inexorable. Many scholars have raised issues about the homogeneity of the capitalist system—the uneven spread and different manifestations of social orders. Questions have also been raised as to whether socialism is inevitable or the revolutionary consciousness of the working class a reality any more. The post-Marxian literature is large and varied; the polemics rich.

Marx did believe that human beings were capable of making their own history, at least influencing outcomes to a great extent. To this extent the potential of revolutionary change remains pregnant in the disorderly chaos of today. People still doubt existing structures of authority, people still organise against displays of ruthless power and greed. The new revolutions are likely to be quite different from some of those we witnessed in the twentieth century. Many scholars are pointing out that the second contradiction of capital is not with labour but with Nature. That might be the big trigger to the creation of a new world order. Marx and Engels were remarkably ahead of their times on this Issue—the human-nature contradiction that capitalism intensifies. But that is one question that Renton chose not to discuss. It is an important gap in this otherwise elegantly edited volume.


*Marx on Globalisation
Edited and Selected by David Renton
Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2014

Frontier
Vol. 48, No. 43, May 1 - 7, 2016