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Marx predicted our present crisis – and points the way out

The Communist Manifesto foresaw the predatory and polarised global capitalism of the 21st century. But Marx and Engels also showed us that we have the power to create a better world.

by Yanis Varoufakis

Part 4 - It is our duty to tear away at the old notion of privately owned means of production and force a metamorphosis, which must involve the social ownership of machinery, land and resources

If the manifesto holds the same power to excite, enthuse and shame us that it did in 1848, it is because the struggle between social classes is as old as time itself. Marx and Engels summed this up in 13 audacious words: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

From feudal aristocracies to industrialised empires, the engine of history has always been the conflict between constantly revolutionising technologies and prevailing class conventions. With each disruption of society’s technology, the conflict between us changes form. Old classes die out and eventually only two remain standing: the class that owns everything and the class that owns nothing – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

This is the predicament in which we find ourselves today. While we owe capitalism for having reduced all class distinctions to the gulf between owners and non-owners, Marx and Engels want us to realise that capitalism is insufficiently evolved to survive the technologies it spawns.

It is our duty to tear away at the old notion of privately owned means of production and force a metamorphosis, which must involve the social ownership of machinery, land and resources. Now, when new technologies are unleashed in societies bound by the primitive labour contract, wholesale misery follows. In the manifesto’s unforgettable words: “A society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

The sorcerer will always imagine that their apps, search engines, robots and genetically engineered seeds will bring wealth and happiness to all. But, once released into societies divided between wage labourers and owners, these technological marvels will push wages and prices to levels that create low profits for most businesses. It is only big tech, big pharma and the few corporations that command exceptionally large political and economic power over us that truly benefit.

If we continue to subscribe to labour contracts between employer and employee, then private property rights will govern and drive capital to inhuman ends. Only by abolishing private ownership of the instruments of mass production and replacing it with a new type of common ownership that works in sync with new technologies, will we lessen inequality and find collective happiness.

According to Marx and Engels’ 13-word theory of history, the current stand-off between worker and owner has always been guaranteed. “Equally inevitable,” the manifesto states, is the bourgeoisie’s “fall and the victory of the proletariat”. So far, history has not fulfilled this prediction, but critics forget that the manifesto, like any worthy piece of propaganda, presents hope in the form of certainty. Just as Lord Nelson rallied his troops before the Battle of Trafalgar by announcing that England “expected” them to do their duty (even if he had grave doubts that they would), the manifesto bestows upon the proletariat the expectation that they will do their duty to themselves, inspiring them to unite and liberate one another from the bonds of wage-slavery.

Will they? On current form, it seems unlikely. But, then again, we had to wait for globalisation to appear in the 1990s before the manifesto’s estimation of capital’s potential could be fully vindicated.

Might it not be that the new global, increasingly precarious proletariat needs more time before it can play the historic role the manifesto anticipated? While the jury is still out, Marx and Engels tell us that, if we fear the rhetoric of revolution, or try to distract ourselves from our duty to one another, we will find ourselves caught in a vertiginous spiral in which capital saturates and bleaches the human spirit. The only thing we can be certain of, according to the manifesto, is that unless capital is socialised we are in for dystopic developments.

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