You are a Marxist – but don’t worry

Few ideas have been more thoroughly discredited and rejected by history than those of Karl Marx.

All the major nations which once adhered officially to Marxism have abandoned that model. It’s not surprising.

Frankly, the remedies Marx proposed for the ills of the world now sound a bit demented. He thought we should abolish private property. People should not be allowed to own things. At certain moments one can sympathise. But it’s like wanting to ban gossip or forbid watching television. It’s going to war with human behaviour. And Marx believed the world would be put to rights by a dictatorship of the proletariat; which does not mean anything much today.

Openly Marxist parties received a total of only 1,685 votes in the 2010 UK general election, out of the nearly 40 million ballots cast.

Marc got 179 votes in Glasgow, North West

Yet, in fact, you are almost certainly a Marxist.

Marx wanted to focus our attention on what goes wrong with work. Having a job often feels like the central issue in life. At parties, ‘what do you do?’ is the most frequently asked question. But, on the whole, work and making money are far from satisfactory parts of existence. We grumble about our jobs, feel that the economy doesn’t serve us very well and spend huge swathes of our lives just trying to get hold of enough cash.

Marx identified key factors which help explain what goes well – and badly – around work.

ONE: I want to see myself in what I have made

In his search for what makes work fulfilling, Marx speaks beautifully about workers needing ‘to see themselves in the objects they have created’. In other words, at its best, labour offers us a chance to externalise what’s good inside us (let’s say, our creativity, our rigour, our logic), and to give it a stable, enduring form in some sort of object or service independent of us. Our work should – if things go right – be a little better than we manage to be day to day, because it allows us to concentrate and distill the best parts of us. Think of the person who built this chair: it is straightforward, strong, honest and elegant. Now its maker would not always have been these things: sometimes he or she might have been bad tempered, despairing, unsure. Yet the chair is a memorial to the positives of his or her character. That’s what work is ideally, thought Marx. But he also observed how in the modern world, fewer and fewer jobs have this characteristic of allowing us to see the best of ourselves in what we do.

TWO: Money isn’t enough

Marx was aware of a lot of jobs where a person generates money, but can’t see their energies ‘collected’ anywhere. Their intelligence and skills are dissipated. They can’t point to something and say: ‘I did that, that is me’. It can afflict people doing apparently glamorous jobs – a news reader or a catwalk model. Day to day, it is exciting. But over the years it does not add up to anything. Their efforts do not accumulate. There isn’t a long-term objective their work is directed towards. After a number of years they simply stop. It’s the reverse of an architect who might labour for five years on a large project – but all the millions of details, which might be annoying or frustrating in themselves, eventually add up to an overall, complete achievement. And everyone who is part of this, participates in the sense of direction and purpose. Their labours are necessary to bring something wonderful into existence. And they know it.

It took so long and was so fiddly; now it stands as a monument to collective intelligence and effort

THREE: Work should be meaningful

How does work get to feel ‘meaningful’? A lot of what we look for in employment seems to hang on this word. Work becomes meaningful, Marx says, in one of two ways. Either it helps the worker directly to reduce suffering in someone else or else it helps them in a tangible way to increase delight in others. A very few kinds of work, like being a doctor or an opera star seem to fit this bill perfectly.

But often people leave their jobs and say: I couldn’t see the point in working in sales or designing an ad campaign for garden furniture or teaching French to kids who don’t want to learn. When work feels meaningless, we suffer – even if the salary is a decent one. Marx thought this painful experience was so important he gave it a special name: alienation.

Marx is making a first sketch of an answer to how we should reform the economy; we need an economic system that allows more of us to reduce suffering or increase pleasure. Deep down we want to feel that we are helping people. We have to feel we are addressing genuine needs – not merely servicing random desires.

FOUR: Specialisation deadens the soul

The modern economy is incredibly specialised. One can tell because people have very weird-sounding job titles: you find packaging technology specialists, beverage dissemination officers, gastronomical hygiene technicians and information architects. These jobs take years of training to master, which make the modern economy highly efficient, but we end up with a situation where it is seldom possible to try out a variety of jobs over a lifetime. It would be almost impossible nowadays for someone to have a go at being a doctor, an architect and a pilot before they reached retirement age. And yet what a nice idea…

In Marx’s eyes, all of us are generalists inside. We were not born to do one thing only. It’s merely the economy that – for its own greedy ends – pushes us to sacrifice ourselves to one discipline alone.

But in our hearts, we are far more multiple, and promiscuous than that: beneath the calm outward facade of the accountant might lie someone pining to have a go at landscape gardening. Many a poet would want to have a go at working in industry for a few years.

So in the Communist Utopia, Marx proposed that it would be ‘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…but without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.’ It’s a vision of a rounded development, which work frustrates.

Marx recognises our multiple potentials. And so do we; sometimes on a Saturday morning, we’ll sketch a building or put up something in Lego and wonder, ‘I could be an architect’. It can feel pathetic, but Marx dignifies this feeling. The effort was onto something, there are all kinds of other selves slumbering within us. Specialisation might be an economic imperative but it can be a human betrayal.

The architect hidden inside us

FIVE: Progress should make life easier

Why are we all so anxious all the time? Marx had a diagnosis. Because capitalism makes the human being utterly expendable; just one factor among others in the forces of production and one that can ruthlessly be let go the minute that costs rise or savings can be made through technology. There simply is no job security in capitalism. And yet, as Marx knew, deep inside of us, we long for security with an intensity similar to that which we feel in relationships. We don’t want to be arbitrarily let go, we are terrified of being abandoned. Marx knows we are expendable, it all depends on cost and need. But he has sympathy for the emotional longings of the worker. Communism – emotionally understood – is a promise that we always have a place in the world’s heart, that we will not be cast out. This is deeply poignant.

If this were not bad enough, Marx insists that our sufferings are in fact unnecessary. He draws our attention to something very important: we actually now have the resources to make our lives far easier than they are. We have crises in capitalism not because of shortages, but because of abundance; we have too much stuff. And yet rather than this being a cause of celebration, it becomes grounds for agony. Our factories and systems are so efficient, we could give everyone on this planet a car, a house, access to a decent school and hospital. Few of us would need to work. But we don’t liberate ourselves. Marx thinks this is absurd, the outcome of some form of pathological masochism. In 1700, it took the labour of almost all adults to feed a nation. Today a developed nation needs hardly anyone to be employed in farming. Making cars needs practically no employees. Unemployment is currently dreadful and seen as a terrible ill. But, in Marx’s eyes, it is a sign of success: it is the result of our unbelievable productive powers. The job of a hundred people can now be done by one machine. And yet rather than draw the positive conclusion from this, we continue to see unemployment as a curse and a failure. Yet, logically, the goal of economics should be to make more and more of us unemployed and to celebrate this fact as progress rather than as failure.

For too long, being a Marxist has meant you agree with the least impressive part of Marx’s ideas: his solutions to the ills of the world. And because they look so odd, everything else he has to say falls by the wayside.

But Marx was like a brilliant doctor in the early days of medicine. He could recognise the nature of the disease, although he had no idea how to go about curing it. He got fixated on some moves that might have looked plausible in the 1840s but which don’t offer much guidance today.
At this point in history, we should all be Marxists in the sense of agreeing with his diagnosis of our troubles. But we need to go out and find the cures that will really work.

Tantalisingly, they are truly out there, scattered in this and that research paper and economic book sidelined by the mass media. We’ll be bringing more of them to your attention in the weeks and months to come.