Sunday, 6 May 2018

Happy birthday to the friend of the worker

It’s strange to contemplate the reaction of the chattering classes in the West to the birth year of Karl Marx because in the main it has been roundly ignored. From China we heard the premier, Xi Jingping, celebrate the arrival of the philosopher’s birthday through the official news agency, Xinhua. Which is ironic because it was father Deng Xiaoping who changed the direction of China toward embracing capitalism, a change that altered the face of the country forever. As far as I know there has been no mention of Marx’s birthday out of Russia, which started the whole existential threat thing back in 1917. (I reviewed a history of the October Revolution on 20 October last year.)

When you go to a food court you can see how things have changed for most people. On every side as you walk down the aisle there are refrigerated display cases filled to capacity with food to buy for a reasonable amount of money. There are salads, rolls of sushi rice with fillings, sandwiches filled with meats, containers of curries, bowls of fillings for Turkish pizzas, plates containing hamburgers, and paper cups stuffed with chips. Out of every kitchen in the place emanate the sounds of industry. We have more people on the earth than at any other time in history and still the earth is being convinced to give up enough to feed everyone.

Yet problems persist. Inequality is worse than it has been for a century and the situation is deteriorating. While automaker Ferrari is planning to open up three more showrooms this year in Australia, more people than ever before are suffering from rental stress, where more than 30 percent of their earnings are spent on accommodation. Clearly, capitalism doesn’t work properly when it is entirely left to itself. The market is not ideal and perfectly self-regulating.

In New Zealand, the 2017 national election threw up an unconvincing result and because of the way their system works Winston Peters of the NZ First party was given the task of choosing who the next prime minister would be. He chose the Labour Party to lead the country for the same reasons I have outlined. One of Jacinda Ardern’s first major policy announcements has been to promise to house all homeless people living in the country.

In Australia, the Labor Party is the GOP, the “grand old party”. The opinion polls have shown that undeniably the forecast result in the 2019 federal election will be a win for the ALP. People are fed up with inequality and want the government to do something to make it easier for everyone to profit from the unprecedented gains that mankind has reaped from capitalism.

What Marx did above everything else was give people new tools that they could use to talk about the world. Born in the same year that Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ was published, Marx was the begetter of a thousand new books, to use an artistic formulation of the benefit that we all have reaped from his work. You may not agree with everything that the people who came after him did, but you can at least agree that we are better off for having new ways to talk about ourselves.

Concepts such as alienation and reification stem from Marx’s works. We can talk about the “means of production” and “surplus value”, even without having read a word of Marx in the original. We are richer for the creativity of this extraordinary man. And we should also never forget that he did most of his creative work while living in England, because of the freedoms that had been secured for its residents from time immemorial.

I should note for the record that while my father was a Liberal voter all his life, mum’s father was a Communist, so I can appreciate both sides of the argument.

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