The return of the “bearded one”

Tiistaina, 10. helmikuuta 2009     0 kommentti(a)
Igor Torbakov

When a leading US academic opened his remarks at the high-profile FIIA seminar yesterday with a patently materialist quote from Marx, I wasn’t surprised. I knew it was a reflection of a powerful intellectual trend – or, as Marx himself might put it, a sign of the Zeitgeist.

One might recall different times though. One late British prime minister, Harold Wilson, used to boast that he failed to get past page one of Das Kapital, Karl Marx’s magnum opus. More recently, Gordon Brown, the current British premier, threw into doubt Marx’s explanation of the cyclical nature of capitalist economies, claiming that the vicious cycle of booms and busts has now happily ended.

But lo and behold! The book that has been a German bestseller for the past 10 weeks has a title Das Kapital. True, its author is not Karl but Reinhard Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising. But make no mistake: it’s not just a mere coincidence. The Archbishop has cleverly capitalized on his famous namesake’s renown to better get his message across. The economy devastated by the unprecedented financial crisis and global downturn, Reinhard Marx asserts, will not recover unless it finds the way to reconnect with fundamental Christian values. Moreover, in the introduction to his own version of Das Kapital, styled as a letter to Karl, Reinhard Marx writes: “There’s a question that won’t leave me in peace: At the end of the 20th century, when the capitalist West defeated the communist East in the battle between systems, were we too quick to dismiss you and your economic theories?”

A recent issue of the Time magazine not only put the Marx’s portrait on its cover but also thought it proper to begin its cover story with one of the most celebrated quotes from the Communist Manifesto. “Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like a sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells,” argued Marx back in 1848. This description cannot fail to strike a contemporary observer as an eerily prescient analysis of today’s situation when the powerful financial forces appear to have completely spun out of control. No wonder that the Time suggests it would be advisable for the present-day economic pundits who are grappling with how to save capitalism to revisit the teachings of capitalism’s greatest critic. Some commentators – such as, for example, Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash – don’t shy away from bluntly proclaiming that “Marxism is back.”

Well, some may think that Professor Ash might have gone too far. But the trend is there, that’s for sure. The spirit of Marx (if not yet the proverbial specter of communism) was clearly hovering over this year’s Davos gathering. If at last year’s World Economic Forum the focus of discussion was on the shift of global economic power from West to East due to the spectacular rise of China and India, this year’s visitors of the glitzy Alpine resort were preoccupied with a different kind of shift – the one from free markets to state-run economies. Western governments now own huge stakes in American and European banks. For their part, central banks not just inject liquidity into the system at the unprecedented scale these days but also exert profound influence on price movements.

Where do we go from there? The current wisdom is that in the short term the massive state intervention is simply inevitable to keep the whole system afloat. But what’s next? However brilliant Marx’s analyses of the capitalist woes might be, his revolutionary solutions and communist alternative won’t do – these, as we know, didn’t work. Thus we are left with the formidable two-pronged task: while implementing the “emergency” measures aimed to “save capitalism,” policymakers and financiers will have to rack their brains to find the way out of the “emergency situation.”

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