Does the World Have a (Marxist) Future?

On October 19 and 20th, Stockholm played host to “Marx 2013,” a conference on Marxism involving hundreds of participants and leading Marxist thinkers from the United States, France, Germany and Sweden:  This is a rarity these days in Europe, so the event was highly significant. Key speakers included Nina Björk, Gérard Duménil, John Bellamy Foster, Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Michael Heinrich, Alf Hornberg, and Tiina Rosenberg.  These thinkers attempted to show the relevance of Marx for today’s economic and environmental crises.  The conference was a success in stimulating ideas and assembling a large audience. Yet, significant questions remain as to the use of Marx and the use value of various “Marxist” ideas.

How relevant is Marx today?  Some see Marxism as a central tool that has emerged for understanding the present day environmental crisis. Foster described Marx’s theory of the “metabolic rift,” the problem of ecological disruption caused by the intervention of human beings on the ecosystem.  Over time, human intervention limits the sustainability of natural systems.  Foster argued that the planet cannot be saved merely with changes in technology, i.e. there is no technological solution per se.  Instead, any technological changes to preserve the ecosystem must be complemented by changes in social relations and conservation.  Foster’s work shows why Marx is relevant for both ecological and traditional Left parties as Marx addressed how the economic system contributed to both the environmental and economic crises.  In The Poverty of Power,  Barry Commoner long ago described a triple crisis linking the energy, economic and ecological systems.

Does the organization of capitalism then mean that labor and ecological struggles can be united?  Andreas Malm, a researcher at Lund University, commented that the working class in England once fought environmental problems and workers’ exploitation simultaneously.  Today, these struggles are largely divided.  Malm suggested that this historical divide in social movements is part of the crisis facing the Left or Marxism.  Foster responded that this divide was the reflection of changes in material conditions that separated environmental effects from working conditions, but material conditions are changing yet again as movements like “Idle No More” in Canada show how pillaging the earth produces a social movement backlash.  Ilia Farahani, another Lund researcher, argues that sometimes labor and environmental interests overlap but at other times they have collided.

The ability to integrate labor, environmental and economic political interests can be influenced by the way in which the system organizes itself.  In Heinrich’s language, contemporary capitalism sees displacement of problems in time and space.  Economic crises are solved in one of two ways.  First, displacement in space occurs when a country deals with overproduction by exporting its economic problems to other countries, i.e. an export of goods helps a country solve the problems of insufficient domestic demand. Foreign nations purchase the “surplus” production of exporting nations (production not used domestically). Overproduction relates to production that does not have sufficient purchasers.  Likewise, in terms of the environment Alf Hornberg, author of Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange, argues that our advanced technological imports from China and elsewhere involve a displacement of place as we export our pollution to other countries.

Second, displacement of such economic problems occurs in time when payoffs to over-leveraged assets are pushed into the future.  Displacement in time is harder to achieve, however, as Foster says that the planet may reach an irreversible tipping point around the year 2040.  As the New Scientist reports, “Greenland will reach a tipping point in the early 2040s. After that no amount of action on our part can save the ice sheet.”

Of course, the central issue behind the economic and environmental crises is power.  Who is behind the status quo that points towards ecocide, i.e. the permanent destruction of the planet?  Duménil pointed to a study in 2007 of 37 million firms carried out by physicists that he will report on in a forthcoming book.  The study found that 59.8 percent of profit is controlled by just 15.1 percent of corporations included in this database.  At the epicenter of this system are financial corporations.  Forty-seven of the top fifty owners in the global economic system represented by this study are comprised of firms in the financial sector.  Of these, twenty-four are U.S. firms, eight are British and five French.  Just 737 corporations considered jointly control 80 percent of the value of all transnational corporations.  Among the key firms at the epicenter of the system include Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase and Co., Citigroup, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Corporation, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and Prudential Financial.  Dumenil did not address how splits between different kinds of firms could create political openings, i.e. the thousands of companies hurt by the actions of financial firms or oil firms making super-profits.

The other side of Deminil’s leading corporations is what Heinrich called a capitalism suffering from a crisis of surplus profits, with concentration of wealth limiting economic demand by the mass of worker consumers whose purchasing power is suppressed.   Some Marxists viewed this analysis as Keynesian, insisting on the overall tendency of profit in capitalism to fall.  Others saw Heinrich as a kind of undogmatic Marxist, able to adapt theory to such new conditions.

The ascendancy of financial control over other corporations is the other side of what Duménil calls Neoliberalism and others term “financialization.”   Either way, Duménil argues that changes dating back to the 1970s or so account for a shift in political blocks.  Earlier, the managerial classes in alliance with the popular classes produced a “compromise to the Left.” Today, the alliance between capitalist financial organizations and managerial classes produces a “compromise to the right.” Financial domination of corporate ownership helps cement this compromise, where various networks link global firms and the strength of financial owners triumphs over managers.

Is there a way out of this rightward tilt?  Duménil argues that leveraging the power of institutional investors, the potential way out defined by politicization of pension funds, is limited by the placement of pension funds in the hands of asset managers, i.e. the big firms.  He argues that one way to break the current grip of Neoliberal, financial dominance would be if one country elected an authentic Left regime that changed the rules on the financial elites, or class or corporate owners, setting an example for other European nations to follow.  Significantly, Heinrich  points to Marx’s view of the state as a significant actor for change in some of Marx’s later writings.  Marx argued that the development of crises depends on actions by workers, capitalists, the state and central banks.  Differences among states emerge as when Marx noted that the U.S. had more dynamic financial markets than England in the 1870s.

Is the primary barrier to social change globalization of capital and the rise of financial capitalists?   Change is not just limited by the dramatic concentration of power but also by the inability to integrate theory and practice. A reductionist social science reads social change off economics, without considering how social movement development itself creates openings and closures.  At the tail end of the conference, in the feedback session, an American observer said that we should not expect scholars to understand activism, because they are unable to do this very well.  Just hang out with activists he advised.  In contrast, thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx, David Graeber, Seymour Melman, C. Wright Mills, Cynthia Cockburn and Manuel Castells have studied both the organization of the economic or political realities on the one hand and transformative spaces and social movements on the other.  Yet, large parts of contemporary Marxism still suffer from a kind of cognitive gap when it comes to this integration.

Some Marxists point to revolution or a financial crisis as the ultimate benchmark for social change.  We must wait for either apparently or throw out the entire system before any meaningful change is possible.  Others, like Duménil point to a potential statist intervention whereas Foster himself points to openings created by ongoing social movements.  Foster highlighted a proposal by leading climate change scientist James Hansen to tax companies involved in carbon generation, distributing the proceeds directly to the masses of citizens.  Foster calls this a kind of class based reform that would win over the masses in the fight against climate change.  Foster also calls for an ecological revolution.  Such reforms could promote dynamic change, but we still need a vehicle to help promote such agendas.  Social movements are not simply independent variables, their effectiveness is also dependent on something else.

One way Left ideas can become relevant to social change is through designs and innovations, i.e. the nexus of ideas and material conditions. The concentration of corporate power described by Duménil and the workings of vast economic system provide a top down reading of the system.  In contrast, Chilean scholar Cristian Alarcon has studied how class struggles in Latin America have changed social-ecological relations.  Movements like those in Brazil have involved landless occupations, where social movements produce food for the working class and ethanol for municipalities.  Here we have the socialization or democratization of technologies.  Some point out that machinery seized by local activists can be suited to “capitalist conditions,” i.e. there can be a bias of technology appropriated even by the most radical workers’ movements in Latin America.  Yet, the problem here is that the Left often conceives of technology as a mere tool of the market and an extension system for capitalist power rather than a tool for extending the power of the Left.

This last observation flys in the face of a radical, utopian strain in the conceptualization of technology.  Bertolt Brecht, for example, saw the radio as a direct tool of empowerment, not simply a means of deconstructing the last bad news of a corporate, militarist system promoting ecocide.  Ivan Illich conceived of how technology that could be designed to work for people’s interests and not against them.  Paul Goodman believed that technology could be conceived as a locally controlled system that promoted popular education in the media or the reworking of cities as ecological systems, as in the book,Communitas, co-authored with his brother Percival Goodman.  Such utopian ideas, associated with anarchist and even Marxist thinkers, are usually relegated to the dustbin in macro calculations of class, crisis, financial hegemony and big business profit-making.

Unfortunately, contemporary Marxism risks recapitulating Stalinist determinism in its view of the boundaries of human freedom or celebrating voluntarism without a critical eye to its design.  On the one hand, many on the Left have never encountered a social movement that they didn’t like, giving a pass to the spontaneous uprisings of various social movements.  Some Left intellectuals are unable to integrate theory and practice because they flatter and cheerlead social movements in part to sell their books.  The problem here is one of voluntarism, assuming movements are the best solution to problems.  The fact is that many movements waste political energy and fail, so supporting badly designed movements has the effect of elevating structural barriers over free will and beliefs that change simply depends on a crisis.

Nevertheless, once the Left starts to control the very means of technology, innovation or production, it is viewed with determinist suspicion. Technology is seen simply as coopting. This view, promoted by some “Marxists” is the very antithesis of a critical Left view of technology.  Marx conceived of the Paris Commune as a space for experimentation and social control of society.  While he belittled various utopians, he himself supported structural reforms in The Communist Manifesto.  In much academic Marxism such reforms are viewed with great suspicion, because of the belief that the system is totally corrupt.  Yet, the state is not a totality of evil but rather contains aspects of retrogression and liberation.   For example, the U.S. state involves both a welfare state and a warfare state as the famous Marxist economist James O’Connor once observed.  This means that Robert McNamara and Martin Luther King have both influenced that character of the U.S. state, even if the former and his ilk have had a greater impact than the later.

The mistake of contemporary liberals and the non-profit industrial complex has been to assume that the reformer state will make systemic gains simply through lobbying and collecting good ideas.  The Estatist Left (centered in France) often reduces social change to a change in governments, even one backed by social movements.  In contrast, we need to create a new machinery of extended government accountability, resonant with Thomas Paine’s view that the constitution is that act of people constituting the government.   Marxists who claim they dislike postmodernism, sometimes given postmodernist readings of Marx, deconstructing Marx’s texts rather than applying his method, e.g. studying production, looking at the interface between agency and structure, unveiling contingencies, etc.  They are “deductive” Marxists, not materialists.  They deduce the real world from what Marx once wrote in the past, not what Marx would have induced by observing the present. Simply put, Marx could change his mind but these scholars can’t because of their Talmudic deconstructions.

The creation of a parallel state to the existing state is easy to imagine.  It begins by campaigns to create alternative economic institutions such as popularly controlled banks and utilities, which citizen consumer power creates intermediary organizations that create an economic or energy foundation for an alternative economy.  The range of cooperative firms could act as a new lobby against the state, just as campaigns of divestment and selective reinvestment in green power create a foundation for change.   President Obama said as much on June 25th of this year: “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest.”

The campaign by for fossil fuel divestment is matched by campaigns in the United States and United Kingdom to shift municipal and popular investment capital into renewable fuels.  These campaigns represent the start of a mass movement to democratize technology, a truly radical proposition which would represent a coherent integration of theory and practice.   When investment is turned towards cooperative, green utilities and banks rather than the market, popular pressure from below will create both economic and political tools for even more systemic transformation.  A change in institutional spaces (citizen controlled cooperatives, utilities, banks, and service provision) can create a platform for a citizen controlled or socially responsible technology.  Alternative technology in turn is the foundation for extending power systematically (be it in the economic, media or political realms) with something more than a protest movement and less than an overall shift in state power. Before such systemic shifts can occur, an appreciation of movement and matching technological innovations will have to gain greater currency in various circles, including the world of various Left intellectuals.

Jonathan Michael Feldman is part of the Global Teach-In network and can be reached @globalteachin on Twitter. 

Jonathan M. Feldman is a founder of the Global Teach-In ( and can be reached at @globalteachin on Twitter.